PHNOM PENH—The top court in Cambodia has provisionally freed two men accused of killing a prominent labor leader, ordering further investigation and a new trial in a move welcomed by both the United Nations and the United States.
The case stems from the Jan. 22, 2004 murder in broad daylight of Chea Vichea. The killing was seen by human rights groups as a bold attempt to quiet an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were charged within days with Chea Vichea's murder, despite eyewitness testimony that they weren’t the killers. They were handed 20-year jail terms. The men claim police framed them for the murder and say they made confessions under duress.
They were not the murderers...I am certain. I am sure.
Va Sothy, witness
On Dec. 31, Cambodia’s Supreme Court President Dith Monty dismissed their convictions, saying, “The case is a criminal one which requires more investigation.”The court ordered the men released under court supervision and ordered the Appeal Court, which upheld their convictions in 2007, to re-try the case.
Leaving the court on Wednesday, Born Samnang reiterated that he had been coerced into confessing to the murder.
“It was not a voluntary answer from my heart. They coerced me… [to say what police] told me to say. It was not my true answer. I did so because they beat me and forced me to make a thumb print” on a written confession, he said. “I was not an educated boy.”
Witnesses dispute charges
Many Cambodians, as well as international observers, were initially pleased as well as puzzled at the unusual speed with which suspects were arrested and charged in the murder.
But the case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun appeared to unravel as a witness to the murder said the gunman and getaway driver she saw didn’t resemble either of the two men.
Others said they saw Born Samnang at the home of his girlfriend, Vieng Thi Hong, in Neak Loeung, Prey Veng province, 40 kms from Phnom Penh, when the murder occurred.
“Almost all the people in the whole village were witnesses,” Sok Sam Oeurn, a lawyer and executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project who investigated the case, said in an interview.
“They said that on the day Chea Vichea was shot dead, Born Samnang was at Neak Loeung because it was Chinese [Lunar] New Year. The villagers there and Born Samnang’s girlfriend, who is Vietnamese, celebrated the New Year.”
Va Sothy, a newspaper vendor who witnessed the murder, has also said Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun weren’t involved in the murder.
“Please let me tell you again and again that they are not the killers,” she said in an interview earlier this week. Va Sothy is now in the United States, where she fled out of fear for her safety.
“I am sure because when these two men appeared in court they cried. And when I saw them in the newspapers, I knew that they were not the murderers...Their physical appearance and their clothing didn’t match. They were not the murderers,” she said. “I am certain. I am sure.”
Former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov, who led the murder investigation before he was sentenced to 14 years in jail in July 2007 for corruption, also admitted to framing the two men on orders from National Police Chief General Hok Lundy, who was recently killed in a helicopter crash.
The United Nations and the United States welcomed the men’s release.
In a statement, the United States urged the Appeal Court to “take up the case expeditiously and finally resolve this matter in a way consistent with Cambodian law and international standards of due process.”
“The decision to release the two on bail and return the case to the appeals court for review was a particularly auspicious way to start the new year,” U.S. embassy charge d’affaires Piper Campbell said.
On Dec. 28, Human Rights Watch urged the Cambodian Supreme Court to free the two men.
“Born Samang and Sok Sam Oeun have already spent five years behind bars for a crime they did not commit, and it is time for justice to be done in this case,” Sara Colm, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The New York-based organization cited “alleged police brutality and forced confession by one of the suspects, intimidation of witnesses, and political interference in the judicial process.”
Chea Vichea was extremely popular as an advocate for human rights and better conditions for Cambodian garment workers. He was also seen as an ally of opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
His demands were widely seen as a threat to powerful government officials who profited from the garment industry.
He was injured in a grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration calling for judicial reform on March 31, 1997, and had been receiving death threats through phone and text messages shortly before his murder.
In its most recent report on human rights in Cambodia, the U.S. State Department stated that "corruption was considered endemic and extended throughout all segments of society, including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government."
It cited a 2006 Economic Institute of Cambodia study that found the private sector perceived the judiciary to be the most corrupt institution in the country, followed by the tax and customs services, public health care, and police.
Original reporting by Sok Ry Sum, Sattana Som, and To Serey for RFA’s Khmer service. Service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.