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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pair get long-awaited day in court

Pair get long-awaited day in court

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A woman burns incense and prays in front of a portrait of slain labour rights leader Chea Vichea to mark the fifth anniversary of his death in Phnom Penh, Jan. 22, 2009. Photograph: Reuters

Nearly eight years after Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested for the high-profile slaying of unionist Chea Vichea, the two men, widely believed to have been wrongfully convicted, yesterday took a tentative final step toward clearing their names.

The Court of Appeal on Wednesday re-tried their case, after stalling for years following a 2008 Supreme Court order that provisionally released the men from prison and called for a new investigation.

In a perfunctory three-hour hearing, the court heard from prepared witness statements and the two defendants.

Much of the testimony followed a narrative that, after numerous hearings, investigations and public statements, is by now familiar.

In January 2004, a week after the Free Trade Union (FTU) president was gunned down in broad daylight on a street in Phnom Penh, the men were arrested and charged with the murder.

After denying any involvement – weeping and begging for help as police brought them in – one confessed, although he later recanted, saying he had been coerced by the police.

“I denied all my previous answers to the police and the lower court’s prosecutor and investigative judge because these answers were not my real answers. They were the police’s answers, and I was forced by the police to confess,” Samnang told the court yesterday.

“I did not kill Uncle Chea Vichea, as I was accused. I was only the victim of arrest in this case,” he said.

It is widely believed both men – who were sentenced to 20 years in prison and ended up serving more than four and a half – were set up to take the fall for the politically motivated murder of a man whose efforts had put him at odds with the powerful.

While a comprehensive investigation was never launched, disgraced former municipal police chief Heng Pov – on the run from a host of criminal charges – told the French magazine L’Express in 2006 that the men had been framed for a murder that was a government-ordered conspiracy.

Though imprisoned in Prey Sar, Samnang said he enjoyed special treatment from associates of Pov’s in return for his falsified confession.

“They brought beautiful prostitute girls for me to have sex with in the prison two times. Besides this, they also bought or sent food and some money,” he said. Like Samnang, Sam Oeun spent much of his testimony pleading innocence.

“I was only a guiltless person and the victim of this case. Therefore, I would like to ask the court to clear my accusation, drop the charges against me and release me so that I will have full freedom like other citizens,” he said.

Both Sam Oeun and Samnang have remained in limbo since their provisional release in January 2009 because the re-investigation ordered by the high court has repeatedly stalled. The case has bounced from the Appeal Court to the Municipal and back, only to see the politically sensitive hearing rescheduled on multiple occasions.

And while yesterday’s trial was a major step toward clearing the names of the two men, many noted it did little to shed light on the assassination of Chea Vichea.

“I would like to ask the court to find the real killers and punish them by law, and find justice for my client,” said Kao Ty, a lawyer for Vichea’s wife, Chea Kimny.

Kimny lives in Finland, where she and her daughters received political asylum shortly after the murder.

Chea Mony, who took the helm of FTU after his brother’s death, said he was doubtful the investigation would do anything to uncover the identities of the guilty.

“Myself, 99 per cent I did not believe in the Cambodian court system. So I do not expect that the Court of Appeal will find the truth and justice for my elder brother in this case.”

Court vice-president Chuon Sunleng said a verdict is expected on November 26.

To contact the reporter on this story: Buth Reaksmey Kongkea at reaksmeykongkea.buth@phnompenhpost.com

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