The courtroom erupted in applause yesterday as the Supreme Court acquitted two men falsely charged with the murder of unionist Chea Vichea nearly a decade ago.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are set to leave Prey Sar prison free men this morning after spending a total of five years, eight months and one day in jail.
The pair had been sentenced in 2005 to 20 years in prison for the slaying of the outspoken activist, in spite of a staggering lack of evidence.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed, saying there was in fact ample proof that the pair weren’t even in Phnom Penh when the murder took place.
“Having no inculpatory evidence against Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang, and given that these two could not have been at the scene of the crime, we drop the charges,” Supreme Court deputy president and presiding judge Khim Ponn said.
The verdict came after a four-hour trial at which judges repeatedly sought to establish a connection between the two men prior to the January 22 murder.
Both men have repeatedly vowed over the years that they had never met each other until their arrest, a week after Vichea’s death.
Lawyers for the defendants also sought to highlight the paucity of evidence, while a witness statement confirming the pair were not the killers was read aloud in court.
An associate of Samnang told the court that he had been in Prey Veng that day, while Sok Oeun’s lawyer played a video interview with a witness testifying that they’d spent all day together at a Chinese New Year’s party.
But the facts of the case – agreed upon so readily by the judges yesterday – have failed to sway the court in the past, and both men were visibly nervous as they entered the courtroom yesterday morning.
Standing in the dock, Samnang replied to each question asked by the nine panel judges with a slight bow and sampeah.
Sok Oeun, meanwhile, had to be told repeatedly to calm down as he shouted answers at the judges. Asked if he wanted to provide any closing remarks, he broke down sobbing, and simply reiterated his innocence.
“Why do they play with me and put me in jail? I did nothing wrong.”
An outspoken unionist, Vichea had drawn the ire of many and had spent the last months before his murder lying low after receiving a death threat linked to a high-ranking official.
On the morning of his death, Vichea made a rare outing to the newsstands behind Wat Lanka. As he stood reading a newspaper, a gunman approached, shot him three times in front of a crowd of people, and sped away on the back of a waiting motorbike.
More than 15,000 mourners turned out for his funeral, and King Norodom Sihanouk released a statement condemning the “assassinations, with a background that is unquestionably political”.
When police made their arrests a week later, however, it was of two men with no apparent connection to Vichea. During a press conference staged by the police shortly after the arrests, Samnang and Sok Oeun begged journalists to help them, breaking down as they said they’d been beaten until they confessed to the crime.
Despite their statements, and support from King Sihanouk, human rights organisations, unions and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, a year-and-a-half after their arrest, Samnang and Sok Oeun were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
They spent nearly five years in jail before the Supreme Court ordered their provisional release in January 2009, pending a re-investigation at the Appeal Court. But in December 2012 – after spending years attempting to move on with their lives – the men were ordered re-incarcerated after a shock Appeal Court verdict announcement.
As the case made its way through the system over the years, it was marked time and again by rampant irregularities. A judge who sought to drop the charges was removed from his post; an appeal was cancelled and never rescheduled after a judge claimed to have diarrhoea. By the close, the case had been sent to the Municipal Court three times, the Appeal Court four times, and the Supreme Court twice.
In the meantime, evidence suggesting the pair had indeed been framed continued to mount. Most damningly, disgraced former municipal police chief Heng Pov told French news magazine L’Express the killing had been organised by top officials.
“It did not take me long to understand that the two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder,” he said in a 2006 interview given while on the lam.
As the judge read out the details of the case yesterday afternoon, the defendants stood still in the dock.
A tense 10 minutes later, when Judge Phonn announced they’d found the pair innocent, both men dropped to their knees as the courtroom erupted in applause.
Leaving the courtroom, Sam Oeun raised his hands and began shouting.
“I would like the world to know that I, Sok Sam Oeun, have been freed and Cambodia does have justice on September 25. I believe that if I am released, Cambodia does have justice. People across the world: believe that Cambodia has justice,” he said through tears.
As the pair were hustled, handcuffed, back into the prison van to return to Prey Sar for processing, Samnang yelled out a thank you to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly president Heng Samrin, as well as to the King and Queen Mother.
“The Supreme Court has given me justice!”
Family members – relief etched on their faces – gathered outside the court as the van pulled away.
“This is the fairest resolution, showing that my husband did not commit anything wrong,” said Sok Oeun’s wife, Neng Sokhen, their baby daughter bouncing in her arms.
Nearby, the mother of Samnang said she wished to put the ordeal behind her.
“I won’t claim any restitution provided my son will be released. It is like I am born again.”
Though the judge in his verdict nixed the possibility of compensation for the duress both men faced, rights groups called on the judicial system to reconsider its “moral responsibility” to the pair.
And with the courts at last recognising the innocence of the fall men, rights groups noted, the question remains of who are the real killers of the outspoken activist.
“A full investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea [is needed] in order to ensure that the real perpetrators are prosecuted, tried and punished,” said the UNOHCHR and ILO in a statement issued yesterday.
The exoneration is only step one, echoed Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony.
“Finding the real killer should be the task of the new government,” he said. “I have nothing else to demand but find the genuine murderer.”