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New look at Vichea murder

A woman pays her respects to slain labour rights leader Chea Vichea in Phnom Penh in January
A woman pays her respects to slain labour rights leader Chea Vichea in Phnom Penh in January, on the anniversary of his death. Scott Howes

New look at Vichea murder

Phnom Penh Municipal Court has reopened an investigation into the high-profile slaying of union leader Chea Vichea in 2004, a court official said yesterday.

Prosecutor Sok Roeun said the court’s head prosecutor began reinvestigating the case early last month in response to an order from the Supreme Court.

That order, he added, was delivered in September as part of the verdict acquitting Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, two men wrongfully imprisoned over Vichea’s murder.

“The municipal prosecutor has already started the reinvestigation but it is not yet finished,” Roeun told the Post. “So far, we have invited some police officers for questioning in relation to this case.”

Roeun would not reveal any more details about the investigation or how long it is expected to last.

Vichea, the outspoken and opposition-aligned leader of the Free Trade Union (FTU), was shot dead in Phnom Penh on January 22, 2004, at a newsstand close to Wat Lanka. The man who pulled the trigger escaped on a motorcycle with an accomplice.

Vichea had only just resurfaced from hiding after receiving a death threat linked to a high-ranking official.

The following year, Samnang and Sam Oeun were sentenced to 20 years in prison for Vichea’s murder, despite no evidence that they were in Phnom Penh on the day of the shooting.

The Supreme Court ordered the two men’s provisional release in early 2009, but the Appeal Court sent them back to prison in December 2012. They were finally acquitted on September 25 last year.

The revelation that the municipal court was reinvestigating the murder came after Kao Ty, the lawyer for Vichea’s family, received an official copy of the verdict from Samnang and Sam Oeun’s final hearing, he said.

“To find justice for Chea Vichea’s family, I encourage the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s prosecutor to speed up … the reinvestigation of this case, arrest the real killers and bring them to justice soon,” he said. “The case has been in the courts for about 10 years and until now, the courts have not found justice for Chea Vichea’s family.”

Theories that Vichea’s murder was orchestrated by figures in the government have endured ever since his death.

Most notably, 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 the reinvestigation, Vichea’s brother, current FTU president Chea Mony, said he holds little hope that the killers will be brought to justice.

“I don’t expect they will identify the names of the real killers – the government and the courts seem to have no real intention to do it,” he said, adding that to do so would implicate high-ranking government officials. “From what I’ve seen, the judges have not followed professional practice – they have just followed the orders of their superiors.”

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect Yim Sovann, a friend of Vichea’s who was on the scene just minutes after he was gunned down, also doubted that the investigation would expose the truth.
“The people behind the killing are very powerful,” he said. “I don’t think they can find the real perpetrators … like a lot of other cases.”

The reinvestigation, Sovann added, was designed to “divert attention from the political deadlock”, a reference to the opposition’s boycott of the National Assembly following the ruling party being awarded victory in last July’s election.

“I don’t think the Ministry of Interior and the court have the political will to solve this case.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government was playing no role in the reinvestigation.

“The court is exercising its duty,” he said. “The government wants to see justice served.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL

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