Sok Sam Oeun (C) cries at the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/Phnom Penh Post
In a startling about-face, the Court of Appeal this morning upheld the convictions of two men widely believed to have been wrongfully accused of the 2004 slaying of unionist Chea Vichea, and sent them back to prison to serve out the remainder of their 20-year sentences.
Born Samnang, 29, and Sok Sam Oeun, 32, spent nearly five years in prison before the Supreme Court ordered their provisional release in late 2008 pending a re-investigation of the case.
In January 2004, a week after the Free Trade Union president was gunned down in broad daylight on the streets of Phnom Penh, the pair were arrested and charged with the murder.
After denying any involvement – weeping and begging for help as police carted them in – one then confessed, though later recanted, saying he had been coerced by the police.
Rights groups criticised the verdict from the start, saying the men were set up to take the fall for a political assassination. Years later, the disgraced former municipal police chief Heng Pov confirmed as much, saying in an interview with French newsmagazine L'Express in 2006 that the men had been framed for a murder that was a government-ordered conspiracy.
The reams of exculpatory evidence did little to help either man this morning.
Reading out the verdict, Judge Chuon Sunleng said that despite the inconsistencies between witness and suspect testimony highlighted by the Supreme Court, the reinvestigation corroborated the original findings: the pair had, in fact, committed the murder.
In addition to 20 years imprisonment, both men were ordered to pay 40 million riel to Chea Mony, brother of Chea Vichea and current FTU president.
As the men were led from the court to the prosecutor’s office for processing this morning, Samnang began sobbing uncontrollably, pushing against the police who, at the start of the trial, had quietly entered the court room.
“Why are you doing this?” he screamed. “Why?”
For the past four years – as the politically sensitive case has bounced from the Appeal Court to the Municipal Court and back, as verdict after verdict has been delayed - the men had attempted to carve out fresh lives in spite of the conviction that hung over their heads.
Ten minutes after the pair had been escorted up the stairs and into the office to sign away another 15 years of their lives, Sam Oeun’s wife came running up.
With one arm, she wiped back tears. With another, she clutched their baby daughter.
“My husband is the breadwinner in the family,” she said.
“Without him, we have no one to depend on.”