The courtroom erupted in applause this afternoon after the Supreme Court acquitted two men falsely charged with the murder of unionist Chea Vichea nearly a decade ago.
In January 2004, days after the Free Trade Union president was gunned down in broad daylight on the streets of Phnom Penh, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested and charged with the murder.
Though the case was marred with irregularities and multiple witnesses exonerated the pair, they were sentenced to 20 years in prison. Provisionally released in January 2009 by the Supreme Court, Samnang and Sok Oeun lived nearly four years in freedom before the Appeal Court had them remanded into custody in December of last year.
This afternoon, after four hours of hearings and more than an hour of deliberation, the panel of judges ordered all charges to be dropped and the immediate release of the men.
“We have no evidence to say that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were guilty,” presiding judge Khim Ponn said. “Furthermore, the two people could not have been present at the scene, as they were both in the provinces.”
As the pair were led out of the courtroom, a beaming Sam Oeun said he felt justice had finally been served.
“I feel so happy that the Supreme Court at last provided justice for us.”
Turning to journalists as he was led into the prison van, Samnang urged them to pass on thanks to “Samdech Hun Sen, Samdech Chea Sim, Samdech Heng Samrin.”
The case is the first high-profile trial to take place following Tuesday’s instalment of the new government and many rights groups were looking to it as a litmus test. Shortly after the July 28 national election, the ruling party vowed that judicial reform would serve as a cornerstone of its fifth mandate.
“Whatever the reason [for the verdict], I like that justice has been given to the people. The courts need to take this case as an example – that they need to consider testimony, witness statements, judicial procedure. I appeal to all judges to follow this,” said Nay Vanda, Adhoc’s deputy head of human rights monitoring and legal aid section.
Though the judge in his verdict nixed the possibility of compensation for the duress both men faced, Vanda said he hoped the judicial system would reconsider its “moral responsibility” to the pair.
With the courts at last recognizing the innocence of two men widely believed to be scapegoats, however, the question remains of who are the real killers of the outspoken activist.
Vanda, for his part, said the exoneration should allow for a new investigation.
“The government needs to find the real killers now. At least, they need to try their best.”
Read the full version of this story in tomorrow's edition of The Phnom Penh Post.