Srun Vong Vannak was recently released
from prison after serving over a year for a crime - the murder of Hun Sen's
brother-in-law - he says was a frame-up. In his first interview since his
release, the Sam Rainsy Party security chief spoke - from hiding - to the
Post's Beth Moorthy and Pok Sokundara Oct 12.
AFTER almost 20 months in custody, Cambodia's most famous prisoner has walked
free. Srun Vong Vannak said he was surprised at his release, although insisted
that he was wrongfully convicted.
"I didn't expect I would be released that day," he said. "I
expected release 13 years later."
Human rights groups had condemned his conviction as politically motivated
and groundless; Amnesty International declared Vannak a prisoner of conscience
"detained solely for his peaceful political affiliation".
He said he felt outraged when he was sentenced
to 13 years on Sept 9, 1997. "I did not do anything wrong. The charge
against me was a game, planned already. It was completely political."
Yet the committed pacifist insisted he holds no rancor in his heart, although
he had been held since his arrest in Feb 1997.
"I forget what has happened to me before. If I try to remember, it
means I am still vengeful," he said. "Even if I was in prison
for 13 years, I would still not have any idea of revenge."
Vannak, 31, was found guilty of masterminding the murder of Second Prime
Minister Hun Sen's brother-in-law. He works as the security chief for Hun
Sen's strongest critic, politician Sam Rainsy, who called the case "theater".
"I felt that there was no justice at all in the court," said Vannak.
Vannak confessed to planning the murder on Rainsy's
orders on a police tape, but recanted the confession as soon as he reached
He claimed at trial that he confessed only because he was terrified; police
had seized him without a warrant, driven him around Phnom Penh at night,
and held him in a series of hotels while ordering him at gunpoint to parrot
a pre-arranged confession.
The only other evidence against him was the confessions of his two convicted
co-conspirators, who later recanted, claiming similar stories of police
"They wanted me to change my stand, change my behavior to be with their
side _ but, on the contrary, I am completely loyal to democracy and to Sam
Rainsy," Vannak said.
Ironically, Vannak himself is a former policeman who left his job when he
was sickened by the use of violence. "I felt that using weapons against
unarmed people is not justice... a leader who carries weapons leads people
towards destruction. That's why I lay down my weapons and started to struggle
He said neither he nor any of Rainsy's security
force carry guns.
During the months he spent in jail, the talented artist made pencil sketches
of his life story.
A flip through the sketchbook reveals vivid scenes of the story he told
in court: Vannak, blindfolded in the back seat of a car, police holding
guns to his head; Vannak at a table, armed police surrounding him, being
taped while speaking. "I always drew and wrote, secretly," he
said. "If they knew I drew this, they would not let me."
He also filled a notebook with close handwriting, mostly mus-ings on how
a nonviolent struggle for democracy can succeed.
"This book I made is the way to work towards peace... Even if I were
forced by any means or ways I wouldn't change my stand. My opposition is
not by means of weapons but by means of thoughts, ideas."
He discussed democracy and pacifism with other prisoners. He organized cleaning
details and exercise.
At first Vannak was held in a small "cage"
with "about seven or eight people" and was allowed neither a fan,
TV nor radio. After complaints from Rainsy and the National Assembly, he
said he was allowed the comparative luxury of living in the prison hallway.
He said he feels no anger towards co-convict Sos Kasem, who claimed at trial
that he had committed murder on Vannak's orders _ even though Kasem was
initially afforded many privileges in prison.
"[Kasem] changed his statement because the treatment toward him changed,"
Vannak said. "[He] had hoped that he would be amnestied if he took
the blame... But I am not upset that Kasem was treated better than me. If
Kasem has committed [the crime] or has not, it is his own issue."
Vannak may now technically be free but he has gone straight into hiding.
Since his fellow SRP steering committee members have fled to Bangkok, and
legal action may be pending against Rainsy himself, Vannak says he is too
afraid to stay at home.
"I do not blame anyone, but I would like to say all the leaders should
put people before politics."
His case has been a political football, with hopes for his release serving
as a barometer of relations between Rainsy and Hun Sen.
Last December, during a period of detente with
Rainsy, Hun Sen promised to seek a Royal pardon for Vannak, only to balk
as relations with Rainsy soured. Rainsy deplored the use of his security
chief as "a bargaining chip".
In May, King Norodom Sih-anouk announced he was only waiting for "the
green light" _ a request from Hun Sen _ to grant Vannak's pardon.
But Vannak had to wait until after a Sept 22 top-level
political summit including the King, Rainsy and Hun Sen. Rainsy spotted
a chance to wring a concession out of the premier.
"At the summit we discussed the whole political situation, how to break
the deadlock, and at the same time Sam Rainsy took the opportunity to raise
the case of Srun Vong Vannak," Hun Sen's spokesman, Prak Sokhonn, explained.
The premier requested the pardon the next day.
Hun Sen had maintained he was waiting only for a final verdict before making
the pardon request, meaning that Vannak first had to drop a pending appeal,
Sokhonn said. "[Hun Sen] had told [Rainsy] this many times."
After Hun Sen's assurances at the summit, Rainsy
and Vannak's family asked the lawyers to drop the appeal, and Vannak's release
"Political maneuvers _ which have no place in the courtroom _ were
all too evident in this case," said Amnesty International researcher
Demelza Stubbings. Vannak said he was grateful that international groups
like Amnesty championed his cause. "I would like to praise people in
the world for their attention to Khmer people, and think of Khmer as their
brothers and sisters."
While welcoming his pardon, Amnesty slammed all that came before.
"From start to finish his arrest, conviction and imprisonment was yet
another example of the glaring inadequacy of Cambodia's judicial system,"
Vannak agreed: "I am not the only victim. There are so many victims
in the country _ victims of violence, abuses of the court."
Yet he said he was happy that justice was finally served.
"For the sake of justice, I would still be smiling, even if I had been
released one thousand years later."