A police officer who shot and killed an innocent bystander during a cockfighting raid in Por Sen Chey district last month was given an uncharacteristically swift trial and a one-year sentence – all suspended – at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday.
The perpetrator, Chorn Vireak, is expected to be back policing the streets after a trial that was peppered with leading questions from Judge Ros Piseth and Prosecutor Sieng Sok.
On January 21, Seak Ron, 33, was standing on his third-floor balcony after taking his Sunday morning coffee when he was shot through the throat and killed as police began shooting into the air to disrupt a cockfight below.
Ron had a wife and two children, aged 5 and 3. His heavily pregnant sister was sitting just a few feet behind him when the fatal bullet struck.
Vireak today confessed he fired the bullet during a cockfighting operation with five other police officers.
“When we got there, we saw about 40 gamblers. They ran out and confronted my team leader. Then I shot one time into the air,” he said.
“Those gamblers did not have a weapon and they did not clash with me, only with my boss.”Asked if he had permission to open fire, Vireak responded that he did not.
Vireak initially could not name the type of gun or who owned it, but with guiding questions from the judge, he said he used a Beretta pistol that came from his police unit. He said there were five bullets in the magazine, but claimed he only shot one.
Some witnesses said between 10 and 20 shots were fired. Ron was struck by one bullet and grazed by a second, according to Nong Sovanroth, a forensic pathologist who examined Ron’s body at the time.
Vireak said this incident was the second occasion on which he had fired into the air during his two-year stint as a police officer.
Prosecutor Sieng Sok requested the minimum punishment for manslaughter – asking the judge to “suspend the sentence so that he can return to work”.
Pich Yon, chief of PJ Prison, said Vireak remained at the facility as of yesterday afternoon, as he had not yet received the court verdict.
Legal expert Sok Sam Ouen said following court procedure, the verdict would become effective in 30 days time to allow for an appeal by the prosecutor to be filed.
“But if the prosecutor noted on the verdict that he will not appeal, then it will be effective immediately,” Sam Ouen said.
Sok could not be reached to clarify if he had affixed such a note. If he has, Vireak will have spent just three weeks in prison for the crime.
Suspects of less serious crimes routinely spend upwards of six months in pre-trial detention alone, with waits exacerbated by a war on drugs that has further taxed Cambodia’s already-overburdened prison and court system.
Chak Sopheap, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the case was the latest example of impunity in the Kingdom. “Sadly, the fundamental principle of equality before the law is little more than a fantasy in Cambodia,” she said in an email.
“Day in, day out, we see government officials and loyalists given special treatment by the ‘justice’ system, while the unconnected, the poor, and the outspoken are denied their most basic rights, and often their freedom, in the absence of due process.”
She said there were “countless cases” where well-connected perpetrators walked free “despite overwhelming evidence of their serious crimes, while community leaders, journalists, the victims of land grabbing, and other human rights defenders are locked up for the simple exercise of their rights”.
The inequality, she added, “suggests the existence of a deep-rooted cultural and institutional problem”.
In court, Ron’s widow, Nob Sophanny, 27, described the harrowing moment she realised her husband was fatally wounded, saying she heard three or four shots fired. Ron died on the way to hospital, after police allegedly initially declined to help him.
“I did not know who shot and killed him. I just know now that it is him,” she said, pointing to Vireak. Sophanny was paid $8,000 in compensation shortly after Ron’s death.
“I don’t ask for more compensation because this is an accident. This is the first and last lesson for all the police; something like this should not happen anymore. Human life is not animal life.”
Additional reporting by Erin Handley
Updated 7:13am, Wednesday 14 February 2018