The Cambodian Supreme Court has reversed a judgment against a man convicted of killing a branch leader of the Free Trade Union six years ago, in a case that has raised questions on the judiciary and its possible manipulation for political ends.
Thach Saveth, 28, a former paratrooper in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, was ordered released on bail Wednesday after serving nearly half of a 15-year sentence for the murder of Garment Factory Union Head Ros Sovannereth in 2004.
As of late Wednesday, his paperwork was still being processed and he had not been set free.
In overturning the ruling of the lower court that had sentenced him, trial judge Kim Pon said the Supreme Court had found no proof that the accused had committed the murder and that the earlier verdict had been based only on evidence prepared by the police.
Thach Saveth’s lawyer, Sam Chamrourn, reiterated to RFA that the court had no evidence against his client and said that he was awaiting the legal documents necessary for his release.
“The charges and evidence against him were not corroborated. There is no correlation at all,” he said.
The accused’s mother, Houn Phalla, expressed joy after hearing that her son would be released.
“We consider this a good step, that he will be released on bail and will have freedom of movement,” she said.
“I would like to thank everyone for the help they have provided him. I plan to hold a Buddhist ritual to get rid of his bad luck.”
Meoun Tola, Chairman of the Community Legal Education Center, cautiously welcomed the decision of the court.
“We welcome the court ruling, but we are not fully satisfied with a release on bail because according to our investigation, Thach Saveth had nothing to do with the killing of Ros Sovannareth,” he said.
“He is completely an innocent man.”
Saveth had always maintained his innocence, saying he had been visiting relatives across the country in Siem Reap when the killing occurred.
At his Feb. 9 Supreme Court hearing, Thach Saveth told the court that he was initially arrested by the police on charges of drug abuse.
It was only later that the court charged him with premeditated murder.
“They charged me wrongly,” the Phnom Penh Post quoted him as telling the court.
“I request the court to find justice for me because I did not commit the crime.”
Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights as saying that the judiciary suffered “at best” from incompetence in issuing the original sentence and at worst from corruption in furthering a political aim.
Thach Saveth’s verdict had been upheld in a 2009 appeal case.
Ros Sovannareth was a factory representative for Cambodia’s Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, a group aligned with members of the political opposition.
He was killed in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district in 2004 while riding his motorbike—only months after Chea Vichea, the union’s national head, was shot to death in broad daylight at a newsstand in the capital.
Two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were convicted of murdering him, but the Supreme Court ordered their release and a retrial in 2008, citing contradictory evidence.
The Appeal Court in Phnom Penh called for a new investigation in the case, setting both men free until a verdict is handed down.
Current Free Trade Union head Chea Mony, the brother of Chea Vichea, has suggested that the government may have been involved in the killings of both union leaders.
Judiciary under fire
Cambodia’s judiciary has long been criticized as a tool of corrupt officials and in dire need of re-structuring.
Thun Saray, director of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), has called for a full reform of the country’s legal system.
“We all see the shortcomings and flaws in the system. The reform should start by looking into the flaws point by point. For example, the flaws happen in the process of trials and court proceedings which result in unjust rulings,” he said.
“The public is unsatisfied with the current process of court trials. We have to look, investigate these shortcomings, and fix them.”
More than one-quarter of Cambodian court defendants have reported being tortured or coerced into confession, and ordinary people said they lack faith in the justice system, according to a 2009 judicial review released by Cambodian anti-corruption organization The Center for Social Development.
Poor training of the judiciary, bribery, torture, underfunding, a lack of independence, and frequent pre-trial detention of prisoners for terms exceeding the legal limit of six months are among problems with the judiciary often cited by rights organizations.
At the end of his last visit in June, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi said the judiciary faced “tremendous challenges in delivering justice for the people of the country, especially the poor and marginalized,” adding that some judges were simply not interested in upholding the law.
Reported by Sok Serey for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Chivita. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.