All charges against a husband and wife imprisoned for nearly a year on suspicion of murdering journalist Hang Serei Oudom were dropped yesterday, as Ratanakkiri Provincial Court ordered their release amid criticism that it had botched the investigation into the brutal killing.
According to Chhay Thy, a coordinator for rights group Adhoc, judge Y Sovann ordered the release of provincial military policeman An Bun Heng and his wife, Sim Vy – who appeared in court dressed in civilian clothing instead of their usual prison blues – citing a lack of proof, which Thy attributes to the court’s own investigative shortcomings.
“Presiding judge Y Sovann delivered a short verdict, dropping charges against the accused and ordering their release because the court did not find any incriminatory evidence,” said Thy, whose organisation provided legal counsel to Serei Oudom’s wife.
Chief among Thy’s complaints with the process was the court’s foot-dragging in examining mobile phone records that would have shown the last calls that Serei Oudom had made and received – particularly the call he received on the night of his death, inviting him out for drinks.
The court waited about seven months after Serei Oudom’s death before requesting the phone records, Thy said, only to be told by the phone company that records are deleted after a month. As a consequence, he added, it was still unknown who placed the call.
“This is a serious error of the court,” Thy said. “They delayed without searching the phone system, so the incriminatory evidence was completely lost and it cannot be validated.”
Thy went on to say that the release had been anticipated, and accused the court of dropping the charges for fear of exposing the involvement of more powerful figures.
Serei Oudom, who reported for the Khmer Hero newspaper, was killed shortly after publishing an article linking illegal logging to the son of a local military police commander.
The journalist’s body was found last September stuffed in the trunk of a car parked on a cashew plantation in Ratanakkiri’s O’Chum district. He appeared to have been bludgeoned to death.
Im Chanthy, Serei Oudom’s wife, lambasted the court’s decision.
“I will appeal the decision. For me, law in Ratanakkiri is lax,” she said. “The court favours the rich and powerful, while the innocent are suffering. And if [the suspects] are released, I am also afraid for my safety because I am afraid of being threatened.”
However, Tep Monicheath, the defendants’ lawyer, denied his clients had paid for the acquittal, saying the couple was too poor.
“It is the victim’s right to say what was said, but … I said from the beginning there was no incriminating evidence against my clients,” he said. “The victim might have had many enemies in the province, so the killers could be someone else. I also want the authorities to seek justice for the victim and search for the murderer.”
Deputy prosecutor Chea Sopheak could not be reached for comment.