Chea Vichea is fourth opposition backer killed in January

PHNOM PENH, Jan. 22, 2004�Prominent Cambodian labor leader Chea Vichea received a message threatening to kill him and opposition leader Sam Rainsy exactly six months before he was gunned down Thursday in broad daylight, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

Chea Vichea, 39, first told RFA�s Khmer service on July 24 that he had received a threatening text message on his phone two days earlier. �'You dog, I am going to kill you and kill [opposition leader] Mr. Sam Rainsy on July 26, 2003,�� the message read, according to Chea Vichea.

Cambodian labor leader Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight, 22 January 2004. The gunmen escaped. �I don�t feel safe right now,� he said in an interview broadcast by RFA in Khmer the same day. The text message originated at a Cambodian phone number, but when police attempted to call the number it had apparently been disconnected.

Chea Vichea alerted local police, who offered assistance, and went into hiding from July 22 to early September after knowledgeable sources told him that the threats appeared to have come from a person or person �in the tiger�s den��in other words, someone in a position of power.

Chea Vichea declined further police assistance in September, after receiving several more threats which then stopped, according to Cambodian sources.

Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, in the chest and head around 9:20 a.m. Thursday as he stood at a busy newspaper kiosk in Phnom Penh, police said. Chea Vichea died instantly, and the gunmen sped away.

Deputy Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Heng Peou cited progress in the case. �The authorities are pushing strongly for an investigation,� he said in an interview. �Up to now, we�re making a final determination of who could be connected to the threats against Chea Vichea.�

Chea Vichea is the fourth prominent opposition supporter in Cambodia to be gunned down this month. Cambodian officials have rejected allegations that the killings are politically motivated. Chea Vichea, 39, is survived by his three-year-old daughter and his wife, who is seven months pregnant.

In mid-January, two Sam Rainsy Party activists and one party supporter were murdered, and in October 2003 several royalist FUNCINPEC Party supporters�including a famous pop star and an editor at a local FUNCINPEC-aligned radio station�were shot in Phnom Penh.

"It is a very sad day for us and the Cambodian trade union movement," the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia said in a statement. "We would like to appeal to the international community, especially the union movements all over the world, to take serious note and actions against such killings and the culture of impunity that has been rife in Cambodia."

Chea Vichea with opposition leader Sam Rainsy in an undated photo. Chea Vichea founded the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1996 with opposition party leader Sam Rainsy�whom Chea Vichea supported politically.

A Soviet-trained agricultural engineer, he was elected president of the 30,000-member union on Feb. 7, 1999 and was re-elected May 5, 2001. The Union postponed a new election in 2003, citing political unrest. Chea Vichea led the organization through multiple labor protests that often clashed with police.

In 1997, Chea Vichea suffered a head injury during a deadly grenade attack on protesters outside the National Assembly.

Chea Vichea wounded after a grenade attack in March 1997. On May 1, 2002, a factory security guard beat him during a protest, leaving Chea Vichea with lacerations to the face that required five stitches. Chea Vichea pressed charges against the guard, who was sentenced in absentia Aug. 28, 2002, by a provincial court to serve 14 months in jail and pay a fine of 1 million riel (about U.S. $250). �I don�t believe the guilty person will ever serve this sentence, because he has very powerful backers who are generals,� Chea Vichea told RFA after the verdict was announced.

U.S., NGOs condemn killing

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy said it was "shocked and saddened by the news" and urged the government to make a "maximum effort to conduct an effective investigation to bring the perpetrators... to justice." Acts of violence, "including this cowardly murder, imperil the rights of all Cambodians and jeopardize progress toward a more peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Cambodia," it said.

The Khmer Institute of Democracy condemned the killing and regretted "that the authorities have so far failed to solve any of these [recent] murders... In such [a] climate of impunity, Cambodia cannot become a true democracy with respect for human rights and be accepted as such by the international community."

�We are extremely saddened and shocked by the murder of Chea Vichea. Many international trade unionists were very familiar with his activities and had met him personally,� a spokesman for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Janek Kuczkiewics, told RFA by phone from Brussels.

�We have just a few hours ago written to the acting prime minister, Mr. Hun Sen, demanding that an impartial and independent investigation into his murder be launched immediately, and we have also urged the prime minister to issue public guarantees that trade unionists who are under threats for their personal safety be provided with protection and safety guarantees by the government,� Kuczkiewics said. "We have supported that [letter] with a formal complaint at the Committee on Freedom of Association at the International Labor Organization in Geneva.�

�He has a lot of friends and colleagues, and we will certainly be watching the events over the next two or three days very carefully. We hope that the situation will remain calm and that nobody will exploit any protest action by the workers to create further instability in the country. But we are certainly concerned,� Kuczkiewics said.

The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) gained 73 seats in the National Assembly during elections in August. But without a two-thirds majority, Cambodian law prevents him from forming his own government. FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party won 26 and 24 seats, respectively. Plans to form a new Cambodian government remain tentative, with member parties of the Alliance of Democrats refusing to form a coalition government with the CPP.

RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo and Kham) and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content. #####


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