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Delving into an old murder

Documentary seeks answers about the killing of union leader Chea Vichea.

I was much more interested in who was behind the murder and who gave the ok.

CHEA Vichea spent the morning playing with his daughter, studying his Khmer-English dictionary and plucking his moustache before deciding to leave his Phnom Penh home and pick up a copy of the day’s newspaper.

“I watched him from the balcony as he left,” Chea Vichea’s wife, Chea Kimny, tells director Bradley Cox. “I got up and went to the kitchen. Suddenly, I felt like something kicked me in the chest.”

Cox arrived at the newsstand outside Chamkarmon district’s Wat Lanka just minutes after Chea Vichea was gunned down on January 22, 2004, and his footage from the scene makes for some of the most powerful moments of his new documentary, Who Killed Chea Vichea? Local police struggle to maintain order as journalists and frenzied onlookers surround the fallen labour leader, his blood spilled over a copy of that day’s Koh Santepheap newspaper.

Cox travelled to Cambodia to cover the contentious 2003 elections, and stayed to pursue the story of Chea Vichea’s murder. In a one-hour film screened for the Post on Wednesday, he draws on interviews with witnesses and public figures to document the investigation of what has become one of the Kingdom’s most infamous political killings in recent years.

As outrage mounted in the days following Chea Vichea’s death, police arrested two men – Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun – and charged them with the killing. They were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison at a 2005 trial that was widely derided for failing to meet international standards.

Chea Vichea’s family has insisted since the arrest of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun that the pair are not responsible for the crime, a claim that came closer to vindication last year when the Supreme Court ordered their release after almost five years in prison, pending a new trial.

Interviews with the men’s friends and relatives in the documentary corroborate their claims that they were nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the murder.

Chea Mony, who has taken his older brother’s place as president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, threatened earlier this year to organise a strike if the government did not make progress in the case. He maintains that Chea Vichea was murdered because of his status as a union leader, and expressed doubt that the truth of what happened will ever come to light.

“I think there is no chance to find justice for Chea Vichea under the current government – I have no belief at all,” Chea Mony said Wednesday. “Is it the government’s will to find the killers, or is a powerful person involved in this murder?”

Although Chea Mony had not yet seen the film himself – Cox says plans for international distribution are still in development – he said relatives in the US had told him it presented a “frightful” depiction of Cambodian politics.

“This is not a tale – it is a true story,” Chea Mony said. “This film just wants to inform other countries, particularly free, democratic countries, that we can have no confidence in the Cambodian justice system.”

In August, the Appeal Court announced a new investigation in Chea Vichea’s case and said that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are to remain free until a verdict is handed down. Appeal Court deputy president Choun Sunleng said Wednesday that investigation duties have been dispatched to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Court President Chiv Keng said that an investigation is in progress, but declined to comment further.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Chea Mony was entitled to express his views on the case, though he noted that the investigation of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun is ongoing.

“If he does not believe [the investigation], it’s up to him,” Khieu Sopheak said of Chea Mony. “Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun’s release is temporary – it is not final.”

Fatal consequences
Though the website for Who Killed Chea Vichea? touts the film as “a highly charged murder mystery”, Cox said viewers expecting a straightforward whodunnit story will be disappointed.

“In making the movie, I was never particularly interested in finding out who actually pulled the trigger,” Cox wrote in an email on Wednesday.

“I was much more interested in who was behind the murder and who gave the OK. Based on the evidence and reasonable deduction, I think the movie goes a long way in answering this.”

Though the film makes no direct accusations about Chea Vichea’s death, it paints a damning picture of law enforcement under Prime Minister Hun Sen, portraying former national police chief Hok Lundy and former municipal police chief Heng Pov as the government’s ruthless enforcers.

“When they needed a job done, Hok Lundy would call men like Heng Pov to a meeting,” one anonymous former police official tells Cox. The man says he committed “many” murders on Heng Pov’s orders, and adds: “Afterwards, we’d feed the corpse to the crocodiles.”

An anonymous former government official tells Cox that the judiciary is controlled in similarly hierarchical fashion.

“There isn’t a single judge who is independent.... If a judge makes a decision on his own, the consequences could be fatal,” the official says.

In footage from a press conference held shortly after Chea Vichea’s murder, Heng Pov briefs reporters on the status of the investigation, identifying the owner of the Wat Lanka newsstand as the only witness in the case before catching himself and hastily ordering reporters not to write about her.

“If you want to help Chea Vichea, don’t mention the news seller,” Heng Pov says.

That woman, Va Sothy, has since stated publicly that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun look nothing like the two men she saw commit the murder. She now lives in the United States after being granted asylum – Chea Vichea’s wife and family have successfully sought asylum in Finland – and she tells Cox that the presence of a man on a mobile phone near the crime scene – suspected by onlookers to be an undercover police officer – suggested to her official involvement.

“I heard him say, ‘The work is done,’” Va Sothy says.

Unbowed by threats
Cox said he hopes the film, which premiered last month in the US at the Frederick Film Festival in Maryland, will be broadcast in the US and other countries later this year. Considering its politically charged content, he was not optimistic that the Cambodian government would allow him to distribute the film here, though he said he hopes residents of the Kingdom eventually have access to it.

In its early moments, Who Killed Chea Vichea? contains footage from an interview with its titular figure. With his slight build and nasal voice, he does not make for an intimidating presence, but his resolve is clear as he describes the history of death threats against him.

“I think they want to kill me because of my experience in the past,” Chea Vichea says, adding: “I’m not afraid. If I’m afraid, it’s like I die.”

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