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Vannak an Amnesty prisoner of conscience

AMNESTY International has adopted former Sam Rainsy bodyguard, Srun Song Vannak,

as a "prisoner of conscience" and is demanding his immediate release from


Vannak and two other men, Prum Mean Rith and Sos Kasem, were convicted of the murder

of Hun Sen's brother in law, Kov Samuth last September and sentenced to 10 years

in prison.

However the three men now claim that they were coerced into making confessions and

incriminating each other.

Amnesty South East Asian researcher Demelza Stubbings believes their claims are well


"Srun Vong Vannak is a prisoner of conscience because his detention is on politically

motivated charges and he should be unconditionally released," she said.

We are extremely concerned about the other two men as well. We believe they were

subject to coercion and threats to implicate Vannak in this whole crime."

Vannak's status as a prisoner of conscience will mean he will have support from Amnesty

by way of letter writing campaigns and diplomatic pressure.

There has been renewed interest in the case since the publication last month of letters

by Prum Mean Rith that he wrote last October to human rights organizations and UN

rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg.

In them he said that police had seized and blindfolded him, held him in a hotel for

two days and instructed him to tell a story implicating himself and the other two

in the murder.

The letters echo similar stories told at the trial and appeal by co-convicts Kasem

and Vannak.

"[The police] threatened me that if I did not follow what they said I would

be killed... They ordered me to say that I had been a person who had brought Sos

Kasem to meet Srun Vong Vannak - but I knew nothing about that story - and ordered

me to say that Srun Vong Vannak had hired professional assassins," he wrote

to Hammarberg, begging him to "help find me justice".

However there are concerns that justice will be hard to find in such an overtly political


Rith's turnaround follows that of co-convict Kasem. At a March appeal hearing, Kasem

recanted his trial testimony that he had pulled the trigger on Vannak's orders. He

now says he had been arrested at a hotel and told by then-police chief Mok Chito

that he would be killed if he refused to tell a false story of the murder.

The appeal has been postponed until Kasem and Mean Rith acquire lawyers, but with

the confessions of his two accusers in question, the legal case against Vannak might

fall apart.

While Vannak was in custody, police tape-recorded him confessing that he had arranged

the crime on Sam Rainsy's orders.

But at trial he recanted the confession. Instead, he detailed how he had been abducted

and blindfolded by police, held in hotels and other safe houses for 15 days, and

also threatened with death by Mok Chito if he did not recite the police-dictated


"Now we have three people saying they were coerced," said Phyllis Cox,

a consultant to Legal Aid of Cambodia, the NGO defending Vannak.

Noting that the three confessions were always inconsistent "in a number of factual

respects" - which she said indicated coercion - Cox said the statements should

now be excluded as evidence on which to base a conviction.

Vannak's original defender, Peung Yok Hiep, had alleged publicly after the trial

that her client was framed, and that police were giving Kasem $20 a day in prison

to maintain his story.

One source close to Kasem, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the police


However, municipal police chief Net Savoeun has denied this. He said at the time

the allegation was made that "this never happens in prison... $20 a day is beyond

police capability."

Mok Chito, meanwhile, said that Kasem turned himself in to police and that he and

the others were kept in hotels at their own requests for their protection.

Chito said the confessions alone were not strong evidence, but two witnesses had

also pegged Kasem as the gunman.

"I myself led the investigation... I let the witnesses see Sos Kasem and asked

them whether he was the real killer and he was identified by the witnesses."

Kasem has claimed he was in Siem Reap at the time.

Rainsy, for his part, called the case "a theater play" to target himself,

one of the strongest leaders of the opposition. "The witnesses have recanted.

Now they have no grounds to keep Vannak in prison.

"Either they still believe Vannak's testimony, in which case I should be jailed

[as the alleged mastermind of the killing], or everyone should be freed. It is unfair.

Justice has been completely subverted," Rainsy said.

He said the whole story was sloppily concocted by police: "The day they said

I gave the order to kill Kov Samuth, I was a monk at the pagoda. They did not even

bother to check my agenda! They said they came to my office and I gave them $5,000

[to pay for the hit]... I was not at my office, I was a monk. Impossible."

Rainsy added he was "very sad and shocked" because Vannak was being used

as "a bargaining chip" by Hun Sen.

During a period of détente between Rainsy and Hun Sen, the Second Prime Minister

had made a written promise to ask the King for a pardon for Vannak. But the request

was never made.

"Hun Sen does not keep his promises," Rainsy said.

An adviser to the Second Prime Minister, Prak Sokhonn, said that his understanding

was that Hun Sen would not take any action until after the appeal was completed.

Analysts surmise that Vannak was carefully chosen to be a fall guy in the case, as

his conviction served a double purpose: both implicating Rainsy in a serious crime

and also punishing a former police officer who abandoned the Hun Sen-aligned police

for Rainsy.

A childhood friend of Vannak's said that Vannak had left the police because he had

a falling out with his commander, Mok Chito.

"[Vannak] said to me, 'I dislike the character of my commander. I dislike the

corruption, and sometimes he forces me to commit illegal violations such as beating

prisoners,'" the friend said.



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