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Vichea's death-one year later

Labor leaders and workers will soon observe the oneyear anniversary of Chea Vichea's death with a moment of silence, and the slain union leader's brother says all is not well among workers' organizations.

A string of police crackdowns on labor protests and a general muzzling of union activity have followed in the wake of Vichea's death last January, said Chea Mony, who serves in his murdered brother's position as president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC). At the same time, the courts have fumbled the murder cases of Vichea's alleged assassins, two unemployed men that many Cambodians believe were wrongly-accused, said Khov Chantha, one of the defendant's lawyers.

"I do not accept that the suspects Bourn Samnang and Sok Samoeun are the real killers of my brother," Mony said, citing a lack of evidence against the men. He said the courts should release the false suspects and make efforts to find Vichea's true murderers.

Kong Seth, the Phnom Penh municipal court judge presiding over the trial, said the suspects will soon be brought to justice. Seth said on January 14 he will select a date in the following week for the trial's beginning.

But defense lawyers of Samnang, 23, and Samoeun, 36, Chum Sovanaly and Chantha, said they had not yet gotten invitations from the court, which are supposed to be received at least one week before a trial begins.

Vichea, an outspoken Sam Rainsy Party supporter, was shot three times from close range while reading a newspaper near Wat Lanka the morning of January 22, 2004. Police arrested Samnang and Samoeun in January 28, charging them with the crime.

Two days later, Samnang confessed to shooting Vichea, but later retracted his confession, telling reporters that police beat him until he cooperated. Samoeun has always denied the charge.

Since Vichea's death, the courts have had to balance pressure from higher-ups with potential anger from citizens. A guilty verdict in the trial could prompt civil violence, while releasing the men might lead to professional punishment, Chantha said.

Hing Thirith, the case's original investigating judge, was transferred to Stung Treng province after dropping charges against the suspects in March due to lack of evidence. The case was then sent back to the municipal court for further investigation.

Because of a desire to placate both political elites and the masses, courts have passed appeals for bail back and forth and then denied the requests, lengthening the legal process, Mony said.

Despite the rejection of their bail requests by the Municipal and Appeals Courts, the two defense lawyers are considering filing a new appeal with the Supreme Court.

"We are discussing the filing because we know that the [Municipal] court will not release our clients," Chantha said.

Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor Khut Sopheang, the official who logged a complaint in the Court of Appeals against Thirith, said he was not aware of the trial schedule and had not received information from the chief prosecutor about appointments for the trial.

"If the chief prosecutor assigns me, I will join the trial," Sopheang said.

In the meantime, an inability to punish those responsible for Vichea's murder has not inspired confidence in the already-shaken union and labor community.

Mony described current union activities as "weak", and said protests in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville were disrupted by police who fired into the air and used electric batons to batter demonstrators.

"Some leaders at the factories are afraid to lead a protest," Mony said. "It shows that the democracy in Cambodia is limited."

On January 22, at 9 a.m., workers throughout the city are being asked to pause for five seconds to remember Chea Vichea.

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