Unionists, workers and civil society organisations yesterday marked the 13th anniversary of the killing of prominent union leader Chea Vichea, with many observers finding it hard to ignore the stark parallels between the case and the murder of political commentator Kem Ley last year.
The memorial, the first since Ley’s death in July, was attended by a small crowd of less than 100 unionists and civil society members and held at a statue of Vichea on Sihanouk Boulevard – not far from the Wat Langka newsstand where he was shot dead on January 22, 2004.
The opposition-aligned Vichea, who formed the Free Trade Union with opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s assistance, was gunned down in broad daylight in what was widely considered a politically motivated killing.
Attendees, including a few opposition officials, prayed and placed flowers at the statue, with Chea Mony, Vichea’s brother and a former head of the FTU, saying he had lost any hope the government would solve his brother’s case.
“It has been 13 years already. Where is my brother’s justice? Where are the suspects? There are no answers,” he said, standing in front of his brother’s statue.
Two suspects – Born Samnang and Ouk Sam Ouen – were convicted for the murder, despite having alibis. The two, who were widely considered scapegoats, were ultimately released, but only after serving five years, for lack of evidence.
Mony also decried the inaction by an inter-ministerial committee set up in 2015 to re-investigate Vichea’s death, which had yet to release any updates.
The committee was also expected to look into the killing of two FTU factory presidents, Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy, shot dead in May 2004 and February 2007, respectively.
Meanwhile, the similarities to the more recent murder of Kem Ley – who was gunned down last July while having his morning coffee – were unmistakable.
Police soon apprehended former soldier Oeut Ang, who later confessed to the killing. However, police have since discredited Ang’s suggestion that he killed Ley over a $3,000 debt, without providing any alternative narratives.
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month quietly notified Ley’s wife that it had closed the investigation into the killing, but without addressing any of the findings.
Linking the two cases, Ley’s brother Kem Rithiseth said it was hard to distinguish between the two. “The murder of the two of them is of the same manner, they both come from the same group – people who fight for justice – and the authorities delaying the cases,” he said, adding both cases would likely be solved only with a new administration and reformed court system.
Licadho’s Am Sam Ath said authorities had erred by convicting Samnang and Sam Ouen, and looked set to make another error with Ley’s alleged killer Ang – who initially maintained that his name was Choub Samlab, which means “Meet to Kill”. Though Ang is thought to be the triggerman, his motives have been questioned, and even authorities have acknowledged he may not have acted alone – albeit without identifying possible co-conspirators.
“Although authorities arrested Choub Samlab, they could not really identify the killer or other involved people behind this killing. Therefore there must be powerful people behind this – it is very good show [of action], similar to Chea Vichea’s murder,” he said.
Given that Vichea and Ley were vocal opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen, it was not a stretch to assume the government was behind the killings, said Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. “The investigations into the killings of both Chea Vichea and Kem Ley have been total farces, created to give an impression of professional policing when there was never any intent to find the real killers,” he said.
However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin quickly dismissed any criticism of the handling of Vichea’s case and said civil society was only jumping to conclusions. “They are just outsiders and they do not know what happens behind case,” he said. “The investigation takes time because our techniques are limited and it is a huge, complicated crime.”