A former Radio Free Asia journalist who has been facing an espionage charge for five years begged the Supreme Court on Wednesday to hand back his passport so he can visit his family in the southwestern region of Vietnam known as Kampuchea Krom.
Standing in the dock at the Supreme Court, Yeang Sothearin — who has served as the editor-in-chief of VOD since May — told the judges that he has not been to his homeland or visited his parents for five years, even when his aunt and uncle died, and that his sister has since fallen ill and is in the last stage of her life.
Sothearin was arrested in 2017 alongside another then-RFA journalist Uon Chhin and charged with supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defense, punishable by up to 15 years in jail. They were jailed for nine months and released on bail before trial.
“In order to avoid any concern, I ask the court to do whatever it takes to issue a written letter to make me able to visit only Kampuchea Krom,” Sothearin told the court. “I ask the court to make an inscription on my passport.”
Presiding Judge Kong Srim said Sothearin had been put under court supervision by investigating judges, requiring him to remain in the country, inform the court before changing his address and report himself to authorities every week.
In June, Sothearin asked the Phnom Penh Appeal Court to return his passport, but the lower court rejected the request. The Supreme Court’s Srim said the highest court would nevertheless consider Sothearin’s request.
“If you go to Kampuchea Krom, you are leaving from Cambodia’s territory,” Srim said. “If it is against the conditions, the court can arrest and put you in detention again. That is why the [lower] court did not give the passport.”
Defense lawyer Sam Chamroeun told the court that he supports his client’s statements and that the investigation of the lower court has not progressed.
The rejections to return Sothearin’s passport came even as Phnom Penh Appeal Court issued a closing order in 2020 saying Sothearin was not under the court supervision anymore and thus there was no need to keep his passport, Chamroeun said. He added that the passport was submitted initially as a deposit for bail and not as a confiscated object.
“Since 2017 until now, it has been five years already and if [my client] did not ask for [his passport], I don’t know when there will be a court decision,” he said. “So I ask the court to overturn the lower decision and give back the passport to my client.”
After Chamroeun’s comments, the judge asked for a copy of the Appeal Court’s 2020 decision.
Judge Srim is set to announce a decision regarding the passport on November 2.