Sok Sam Oeun (front) and Born Samnang are escorted on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, by police after the Appeal Court upheld a 20-year sentence handed down in 2004 and ended their provisional release. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post
Nine years after filing a criminal complaint for the murder of unionist Chea Vichea, his brother yesterday announced he would withdraw it, citing a corrupt judicial system.
The announcement followed Thursday’s re-arrest and imprisonment of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, widely believed to have been framed for the killing and who spent almost four years out of prison pending a Supreme Court-ordered re-investigation before their conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Chea Mony, who took over as Free Trade Union president after his brother’s January, 2004 murder, said he had little hope the withdrawal would have an impact on the situation of Samnang and Sam Oeun, but wished to make a statement concerning the judiciary.
“This is a message I send to the world, saying that I, as a plaintiff, decided to withdraw the complaint, because I have lost confidence in the court system. They are not the real murderers who killed my brother,” Mony said.
The outspoken unionist, gunned down in broad daylight on a busy Phnom Penh street during a rare outing, had spent his final months living in fear over a number of death threats.
Days later, Samnang and Sam Oeun were fingered by the police for the murder and dragged — weeping and begging for mercy — to prison. Samnang eventually confessed, only to later retract his statement, saying he had been tortured into giving it.
Despite credible alibis and eyewitness testimony exonerating the men, they were convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
A year later, disgraced municipal police chief Heng Pov, on the run from a raft of criminal charges, told the French news magazine L’Express the men had been set up as scapegoats in a government-ordered conspiracy.
Perhaps in recognition of the scant evidence, in late 2008, the Supreme Court ordered the pair provisionally released and called for a reinvestigation. While the inquiry stalled for years, both men attempted to move on with their lives. Samnang moved in with his mother and sister and started working as a motodop. Sam Oeun married and had a daughter.
After repeated delays, an appeal hearing held last month revealed no new testimony and many observers assumed it was a foregone conclusion the charges would be dropped.
Instead, in a startling about-face, the judges upheld the conviction and ordered the men returned to Prey Sar. Reading from a verdict announcement, Judge Chuon Sunleng, who is also a reserve national co-prosecutor at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said there was no question the pair had committed the assassination.
Lawyers for both men filed appeals immediately following the decision, but admitted the prospects appeared dim.
“This [decision] is a severe injustice for my client. The Appeal Court violated his rights and the law. It’s a politics case, not a real case,” said Hong Kimsuon, lawyer for Sam Oeun. “The Appeal Court did not have more [new evidence]. If the Supreme Court orders the case back, it may be the same as before.”
Along with numerous rights groups, the US Embassy and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said they were dismayed by the outcome and called for a remedy.
“The US Embassy remains concerned by the convictions of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for the murder of Chea Vichea due to the weak evidence presented and the manner in which the original investigation and trial were conducted. We are, therefore, disappointed that the convictions were upheld by the Appeals Court. We continue to urge the Cambodian judiciary to adhere to Cambodian law and international standards of due process,” said the embassy.
In an email, UNOHCR officer-in-charge James Heenan said his office had monitored proceedings and “saw no new evidence introduced”.
“The result is thus puzzling and of concern. The UN Human Rights Office has raised these matters with the authorities and again hopes that flaws in the retrial will be remedied on appeal, in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code,” he said, noting that the lack of evidence was nothing new.
“Back in 2009 we highlighted the unsoundness of the original verdict owing to a lack of evidence against the accused (among other things).”
To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]
Abby Seiff at [email protected]