Born Samnang (C) cries as he is led away by police after learning that he and another man, Sok Sam Oeun, would be sent back to prison for the 2004 murder of unionist Chea Vichea, outside the Appeal Court yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post
Almost nine years after they were first arrested for the slaying of a prominent unionist, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were remanded – weeping and begging for help – to police custody yesterday after the Appeal Cout upheld the 20-year sentence handed down in 2004 and ended their provisional release ordered by the Supreme Court four years ago.
The men stand convicted of the murder of Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea, who on January 22, 2004, was gunned down in broad daylight during a rare outing from his home.
An outspoken activist, at times highly critical of the government, Vichea was believed to have powerful enemies. But it was two unknown men who were picked up by the police less than a week later and fingered for the murder.
In spite of widespread and sustained outrage from rights groups, workers, unions and embassies – who insisted the men were being forced to take the fall for a political assassination – they were rapidly booked, charged and convicted.
Released provisionally by the Supreme Court in early 2009, both men assumed the reinvestigation ordered by judges would see them rapidly exonerated. Instead, the politically sensitive case bounced back and forth between the Appeal Court and Municipal Court for years.
When a hearing was finally held last month, it hewed to well-trod territory, as defence lawyers continued to highlight the evidence in their favour, including alibis for both men and the fact that the key eyewitness said they were not the culprits.
But such arguments held little apparent weight with the judges.
Reading impassively from the verdict yesterday, Judge Chuon Sunleng said there was no doubt the two were guilty.
“The two suspects did not have enough proof to ask the court for their release, because their answers had reversed from their previous answers, and when the court compared their answers with police’s report, they were conflicting,” said Kudge Sunleng, referring to a confession made by Samnang shortly after his arrest and later retracted.
“And based on the police testimony, there was no forcing or beating or violent acts undertaken by police during questioning, as the suspects alleged.”
As the judge ran through the history of the case, Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony, dropped his head in his hands and began choking back tears. In the dock, hands clasped before them, Samnang and Sok Oeun stood stock still.
“The Court of Appeal therefore decides to uphold the 2005 Phnom Penh Municipal Court decision,” continued the judge. “We uphold the sentence of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun to 20 years each in prison, order them to jointly pay 40 million riel [or $10,000] compensation for Chea Vichea, and order their re-arrest.”
As he finished speaking, five police officers who had silently filed into the courtroom at the start of the announcement, stepped forward to escort the men to the prosecutor’s office ahead of their arrest.
Shocked into silence, Sam Oeun walked quietly ahead, while Samnang tried to fight off the police before dissolving into sobs.
“Why are you doing this?” he screamed. “Why?”
Few were not stunned by the outcome. Presumably assuming the overturning of the original decision was a foregone conclusion, only a handful of local media and even fewer rights monitors were in attendance.
Unlike at the high-profile Boeung Kak case being tried across town, not a single protester waited outside the court. After the verdict was read, a rights worker had to scramble to bring Sok Oeun’s family to court before he was taken to Prey Sar.
“I don’t understand,” Neng Sokhen, the wife of Sok Oeun told reporters after arriving. “Just a day before the court’s verdict announcement, my husband told me not to worry about him, that he would be freed, because he is innocent and has not committed anything wrong.”
Clutching their baby daughter with one arm, Sokhen wiped back tears with the other.
“My husband is gentle, and a good man,” she said. “Without him, we have no one to depend on.”
As she spoke, Sok Oeun and Samnang emerged from the office in handcuffs. A cordon of police pushed back Sokhen and reporters as they led the weeping men to waiting vehicles. Both began screaming, appealing to the prime minister and king for help.
“I am not a murderer. I am only the victim of false accusations,” shouted Sok Oeun.
Defence lawyers called the verdict absurd and said they would appeal. The sentiment was echoed by the lawyer for the plaintiff, Vichea’s wife, Chea Kimny, who received political asylum in Finland shortly after the assassination.
“Even the [late] King Father said they were not the killers of Chea Vichea,” pointed out Kimny’s lawyer, Kao Ty, referring to a 2005 letter sent to the parents of both men in which former King Norodom Sihanouk says the men were scapegoats sacrificed to cover for the real killers.
After the announcement, a distraught Mony said he would continue to seek the real killers, and said he would not take “a cent” of the court-ordered compensation, saying there was no doubt they had been falsely convicted.
“I was very shocked to hear the verdict,” he added.
Rights workers who have been following the case for years were no less shaken.
“Just when I thought I’d seen it all, the CPP-controlled courts have reached a new low,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
“These poor guys are clearly innocent, yet their lives are being ruined in a twisted game being played by Hun Sen and other powerful people in Cambodia.”
Shiwei Ye, ASEAN representative at the International Federation for Human Rights, called the outcome a quashing of hope following the Supreme Court verdict.
“Instead of demonstrating a commitment to the highest legal standards and exonerating the two men, the Appeals Court’s decision only adds another layer to the endemic impunity in Cambodia,” he wrote in an email.
“If the Cambodian authorities are unwilling or unable to initiate without delay both a full and impartial investigation into Vichea’s murder, and an independent and public inquiry into the handling of the prosecution of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, it should invite an international human rights or labour body to do so. Eight years are already too long. Vichea’s real killers are still at large.”
Those with knowledge of the matter have suggested no less. Heng Pov, disgraced former municipal police chief, told French newsmagazine L’Express while on the lam in 2006 that the men had been framed for a murder that was a government-orchestrated conspiracy.
Indeed, even for a case that was strung out for the better part of a decade, it bore a staggering number of irregularities. A Municipal Court judge who early on tried to drop the charges over insufficient evidence was quickly removed from his post.
An appeal hearing was cancelled altogether and never rescheduled after a judge claimed to have diarrhea. By the time the verdict was read yesterday, the case had been sent to the Municipal Court three times and heard at the Appeal Court four times.
“There was no new proof found in their re-investigation,” pointed out Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath.
“They should be freed as the Supreme Court had ruled for them.”