On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant for a Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalist after he skipped a court summons related to a prison visit he made with opposition politicians.
Huot Vuthy, 54, also identified as Huot Khin Vuthy in court documents and his U.S. passport, is accused of falsely stating his occupation during the prison visit last month.
Mr. Vuthy, RFA’s deputy director for Cambodia, left the country on Friday and returned to the U.S., fearing for his safety amid concerns that the law would not be applied fairly in his case, the station said in a statement issued on Monday.
He is accused of false declaration, a charge that carries up to two years in prison, for allegedly signing in to Prey Sar prison as a CNRP “assistant” on April 19, a claim he denied in written testimony provided to the court by his attorney on Tuesday.
“Regarding entering the prison, I entered openly along with the lawmakers’ group. I just sat to listen to what they said without walking to check around or interview anyone,” Mr. Vuthy said.
He again denied attempting to disguise himself to gain entry to the prison, stating that he did not enter any job title on the prison’s sign-in sheet. He has maintained that he left the space blank.
“If you do not believe me, you could examine it,” Mr. Vuthy, known on-air as Chun Chanboth, said in his provided testimony.
A photograph circulated online and by his attorney of the sign-in sheet shows Mr. Vuthy’s name with “assistant” listed next to it, alongside the names of senior CNRP lawmakers Long Ry and Mu Sochua and two others also listed as assistants.
Ms. Sochua said on Tuesday that the journalist had maintained from the beginning “that he signed in, but he did not sign in as an assistant.”
Asked whether the CNRP delegation, which had permission to visit 16 imprisoned opposition officials and activists, had attempted to help Mr. Vuthy get into the prison without being detected by guards, Ms. Sochua said it had not.
“We didn’t help,” she said. Mr. Vuthy “said that he had permission to go in with us.”
According to Mr. Vuthy’s testimony, he contacted CNRP lawmakers on April 18, the day before the prison visit, to ask to accompany them “in order to check the situation of political detainees.”
Before the CNRP officials arrived on April 19, Mr. Vuthy said, he decided to visit imprisoned political commentator Kim Sok. He said he told a guard that he worked for RFA while he was trying to pass a secondary checkpoint in the prison.
“I said honestly that I just know him [Kim Sok] as he used to do interviews with me on Radio Free Asia Forum,” he said, referring to his radio program. He was not allowed to visit Mr. Sok.
When the CNRP delegation arrived, he followed them into the prison without being questioned, according to the testimony.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court said in a statement on Tuesday that Mr. Vuthy had informed the court on April 28 that he planned to travel to Thailand and would return to Cambodia on May 1, a day before he was due in court.
“On May 2, 2017, this individual suspect did not show up at the determined time and also did not uphold his promise,” the statement says.
The court said it issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Vuthy in accordance with legal procedure.
Dun Vibol, Mr. Vuthy’s defense lawyer, said his client had changed his mind about returning to Cambodia for “personal reasons.”
“I have listened and discussed with my client. He has proper reasons that could be accepted in order to exculpate him, showing that he had no bad intentions [when he] entered the prison,” Mr. Vibol said. He described the situation at the prison as “accidental” and the result of “carelessness.”
RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan said in an email on Tuesday that the station maintained that Mr. Vuthy “did not commit any crime.”
In a statement on Monday, the station said that “by pursuing this case against him, despite widespread opinion that his alleged actions do not merit prosecution, authorities have only underscored the poor state of free press in Cambodia.”
Cambodia was ranked 132nd out of 180 nations in this year’s Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, which was released last week, dropping four places compared to last year.
In a statement released on Tuesday to mark World Press Freedom Day today, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the government ensures “the rights of the people and freedom of the press.”
He also appealed to local and foreign journalists working in the country to uphold professional and ethical standards, requesting that reporters “please pay attention to correctly implementing the professional code of ethics, avoid publishing one-sided news to show the whole situation…and [avoid] publishing false news.”
Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Bangkok-based Southeast Asia representative, said the court summons for Mr. Vuthy was “a clear act of intimidation and underscores the constant arbitrary legal threats reporters face in Cambodia.”
“This case, if pursued and prosecuted, will give authorities carte blanche to harass and prosecute journalists on flimsy allegations [that] they failed to identify themselves while pursuing politically sensitive stories,” Mr. Crispin said.