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Hope for Chea Vichea 'scapegoats'

Hope for Chea Vichea 'scapegoats'

The October 4 arrest of former Phnom Penh Police Chief Heng Pov may alter the fates of the two men convicted to 20 years in prison each for the 2004 assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea, a member of the defense team has told the Post.

"Heng Pov may be involved with this case; the court must call him for questioning about the police report," said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project and no relation to one of the two defendants, who has the same name.

"This has been clear since former Phnom Penh municipal court investigation judge Hing Thirith dropped charges against them."

Since the arrest of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the Cambodian government has been subjected to volleys of criticism from local and international rights groups. They say the case against the two men has been characterized by political interference in an attempt to find a scapegoat for the murder. Chea Vichea's own family has proclaimed the innocence of the pair, as has former King Norodom Sihanouk.

"Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun should be immediately released," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"These men are scapegoats who never should have been arrested, much less imprisoned for three years already," Adams said. "Evidence of the innocence of these two men has steadily mounted since the day they were arrested. It is time for the Cambodian courts to put an end to this charade and release them."

Pov, who was in charge of the investigation of Vichea's murder at a Phnom Penh newsstand, is presently detained in Kuala Lumpur and fighting extradition. His involvement in the court proceedings could be critical to the outcome. Pov was also named in a separate piece of information considered vital by the defense: The prime witness to Chea Vichea's murder, Va Sothy, owner of the infamous newsstand, has submitted a notarized statement affirming that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not the men she saw shoot Chea Vichea.

Having previously kept silent for fear of retribution against her, Sothy fled to Thailand and made her statement after the recent decision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to award her refugee status. Khov Chantha, lawyer for Sok Sam Oeun, said he had already sent Sothy's statement to the Court of Appeal, but did not know if it would be admissible.

"I don't know anything regarding to the statement right now," Chantha said. "We will wait to see the decision of the court."

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy believes the murder will be pinned on Pov.

"They will be tempted to put the blame on Heng Pov. He was in charge of the investigation and he was mentioned by the lady. He will then point to Hok Lundy," Rainsy told the Post on October 5.

"Blaming Heng Pov will backfire. Will they go half the way and stop asking questions about high levels of government?"

Chea Mony, brother of Vichea and president of the Free Trade Union, said the statement of Sothy is evidence enough to show that the men are not the killers.

"I think it is time for the court to release Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun to be freed," Mony said. "I will thank the court if it acts professionally and frees them, but I don't believe a Cambodian court will be independent or professional."

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