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Cold-case union killings to be probed

Plainclothes police officers check the scene where Cambodia’s most prominent trade union activist Chea Vichea was shot dead next to Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka in 2004. AFP
Plainclothes police officers check the scene where Cambodia’s most prominent trade union activist Chea Vichea was shot dead next to Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka in 2004. AFP

Cold-case union killings to be probed

The government has formed a special inter-ministerial commission to investigate the murders of three union leaders, including the slaying of former Free Trade Union (FTU) president Chea Vichea, whose brother and successor was yesterday among voices cynical of the move.

The directive, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 10 and obtained yesterday, assigns seven high-ranking officials from seven different ministries to investigate the deaths of Vichea, assassinated in January 2004, as well as FTU factory presidents Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy, shot dead in May 2004 and February 2007, respectively.

Authorities have long faced local and international pressure to bring the perpetrators to justice for the slayings, which have been linked to the trio’s union activities.

Opposition-aligned Vichea, the high-profile victim who helped establish the FTU with now-opposition leader Sam Rainsy, was gunned down in broad daylight by two men near Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka pagoda.

National Police Commissioner General Neth Savoeun and military police Commander Sao Sokha – both ranking police officials at the time of the murders – have been tapped for the team, which, according to the document, will be led by a yet-to-be-named secretary of state from the Interior Ministry.

Secretaries of state from the Labour and Justice ministries, also not identified, will serve as deputy presidents and a representative from the Council of Ministers will also be on board.

The seventh slot was assigned to a representative of the “relevant authorities”.

The commission will cooperate with authorities and relevant parties to collect information and evidence and research the facts and legal issues “in detail”, according to the letter.

The resulting report will be made available to international labour organisations.

Reacting yesterday, labour and human rights groups, as well as Vichea’s family, expressed doubts over the commission’s willingness to lay charges or pursue prosecutions.

“I think that this is a joke; I do not have any belief in this commission,” said Chea Mony, Vichea’s brother and current president of the FTU.

“If there is no participation from nongovernmental organisations and the families of victims, it means that it is just a pretext to avoid international pressure stemming from accusations from the victims’ families,” Chea Mony said.

To date, investigations into all three murders have been considered to be flawed by observers.

In all cases, men convicted of the crimes – widely considered scapegoats – were ultimately released due to a lack of evidence.

Thought to be politically motivated, Vichea’s assassination followed death threats linked to a high-ranking government official. In 2006, disgraced former municipal police chief Heng Pov told French news magazine L’Express that the killing had been organised by top officials.

Despite having alibis, Born Samnang and Ouk Sam Ouen spent five years in jail over two terms for Vichea’s murder before ultimately being cleared in 2013.

Last year, Chan Sophan, 35, was cleared of killing Vuthy after spending nine months in prison, but Phal Vannak, 34, is still serving an 18-year sentence for the crime.

Thach Saveth, convicted in 2005 of shooting Sovannareth, was provisionally released in 2011, with the court citing “irregularities” in the case.

Although new probes were promised following the exonerations of Samnang, Sam Oeun and Sophan, new information has yet to emerge. Speaking yesterday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak maintained that the relevant murder cases all remain open, but declined to discuss their status.

He referred questions about the new commission to the Council of Ministers, whose spokesman did not respond.

John Coughlan, Amnesty International researcher for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, yesterday said similar commissions set up to probe shootings by security forces against garment workers in the capital’s Stung Meanchey district in 2013 and on Veng Sreng Boulevard last year, where at least five protesters were killed, didn’t bode well for a result.

“In those instances, the announcement of the committees appear now to have been more an effort on the part of the authorities to be seen to be doing something rather than any genuine effort to conduct the independent and impartial investigations that international human rights law mandates where violations occur,” Coughlan said.

“Those committees never published any findings and no charges were ever initiated for the deaths and injuries.”

Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovan said the party welcomed a new investigation and would “wait and see” before judging its merits.

Mouen Tola of the Community Legal Education Centre said it appeared the government was taking pre-emptive action to appease the United Nation’s International Labour Organization ahead of coming wage talks. Tola said the lack of real action was in fact the truest message to the labour movement.

“If you are attacked while protesting and exercising your fundamental human rights, you can expect the perpetrator will not be prosecuted,” he said.

The ILO was unable to comment yesterday.

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