(New York) - At an appeal court hearing on Friday the Cambodian judiciary should release, for lack of evidence, two men wrongly convicted of murdering labor leader Chea Vichea, Human Rights Watch said today.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who are currently serving 20-year prison sentences, were convicted in August 2005, following a controversial trial that failed to meet international standards of due process and fairness. Chea Vichea, the founder and president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, was the most prominent labor leader in Cambodia until his murder in January 2004.
Since the arrest of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun in January 2004, the case against the two men has been characterized by political interference in an effort to find a scapegoat for the murder. At no stage during the trial did the authorities offer relevant or reliable evidence that would establish the men’s guilt. The October 6 appeal court hearing against the two men’s convictions will be yet another test of the competence and independence of Cambodia’s much-maligned judiciary.
“Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun should be immediately released,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “These men are scapegoats who never should have been arrested, much less imprisoned for three years already.”
United Nations officials, human rights activists, trade union advocates and others have condemned the Cambodian authorities’ handling of the case. Chea Vichea’s family has proclaimed the innocence of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, as has former King Norodom Sihanouk.
Numerous irregularities marred the police and court investigations in this case. The police allegedly tortured Born Samnang to extract a confession, and the Supreme Council of the Magistracy dismissed the judge who initially dropped the charges against the two men for lack of evidence.
In August, the police officer responsible for the two men’s arrests – former Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Heng Pov – reportedly admitted that from early in the investigation he understood that the two suspects “had nothing to do with the murder.” Heng Pov, who recently fled Cambodia after falling out with Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior government figures, made his comments in an interview with the French magazine L’Express. Heng Pov has accused Hun Sen and others, including national police chief Hok Lundy, of involvement in murder, kidnapping, other human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
Meanwhile, the prime witness to Chea Vichea’s murder – Va Sothy, the owner of the newsstand at which the trade unionist was killed – has submitted a notarized statement affirming that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are not the men she saw shoot Chea Vichea. Va Sothy, who had previously kept quiet because she feared for her life, wrote the statement after fleeing to Thailand and being granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She has reportedly presented her statement to other UN agencies in Thailand, and it has been forwarded to Cambodian court officials.
Va Sothy’s statement alleges that Heng Pov, in a phone conversation with her shortly after Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested, instructed her to keep quiet about the two men’s innocence. She also states that, approximately a month after the arrests, a man who she recognized as the real gunman who shot Chea Vichea returned to her newsstand, in an apparent act of intimidation intended to ensure her continued silence.
“This new testimony from the prime eyewitness to the murder is the final blow to a prosecution case that was critically flawed from the beginning,” said Adams. “Evidence of the innocence of these two men has steadily mounted since the day they were arrested. It’s time for the Cambodian courts to put an end to this charade and release them.”
In addition to the immediate release of the two men, Human Rights Watch called for the Cambodian government to launch a new investigation into the murder, followed by a fair trial that brings the real perpetrators to justice, irrespective of who they are or what connections they may have. Cambodia’s international legal obligations also require that an inquiry be conducted into how the case has been handled to date, and redress be made to the two men who were subject to a miscarriage of justice.
Cambodia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal; prohibits arbitrary detention, the use of torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment; and protects the right to life. All of these international legal obligations have been violated in this case.
Chea Vichea was shot dead in broad daylight at a newsstand in Phnom Penh on January 22, 2004. Within a week, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were separately arrested by Phnom Penh police. Paraded in front of journalists by the police, both men declared their innocence and Born Samnang alleged the police had beaten a confession out of him.
The police case quickly fell apart and further allegations of police misconduct emerged. Police officers intimidated and arrested persons who provided strong alibis for the two men to human rights workers and journalists (including that Born Samnang was 40 miles outside of Phnom Penh on the day of the murder). Eyewitnesses to the murder were not consulted in the drawing of a police sketch of the alleged gunman, which bore a striking resemblance to Born Samnang and was issued the day before his arrest, nor were they asked to identify Sok Sam Oeun and him as the killers. The police continued to try, through both threats and inducements, to coerce Born Samnang to stick to his original confession.
In March 2004, Phnom Penh Investigating Judge Hing Thirith dismissed the case against the two men for lack of evidence, acknowledging that Born Samnang’s initial confession to police was “irregular.” Within days, the judge was disciplined for unspecified judicial mistakes and transferred to a remote province. His decision to dismiss the case was overturned on appeal by the prosecutor, and the charges reinstated.
The trial of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun on August 1, 2005, was marked by violations of international fair trial standards, including the presumption of innocence and the impartiality of the court. No credible evidence was presented linking either man to the crime, and the testimony of multiple defense witnesses that Born Samnang was outside Phnom Penh on the day of the crime was ignored. The two men were convicted on the basis of Born Samnang’s initial confession, which he told the court was obtained from him under duress.