After nearly five years in prison, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun – convicted of killing union leader Chea Vichea – have been released pending an Appeal Court retrial
Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN
Vuon Phon, Sok Sam Oeun’s father who has campaigned for his son’s release, talks to reporters after Wednesday’s court ruling.
BORN Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the convicted murderers of outspoken union leader Chea Vichea, woke up in prison for the 1,798th time on Wednesday but went to bed free men.
The Cambodian Supreme Court on Wednesday sent their case back down to the Appeal Court and released them from prison, citing contradictory evidence in the previous trials.
For the first time in nearly five years, the two men were going home.
But many rights organisations - though pleased with Wednesday's decision - are not ready to believe in the independence of the Cambodian judiciary.
"Looking back later, we would hope that this is when the Cambodian judiciary turned the corner.... But we can't say this solves the problem. One case doesn't make or break a long pattern of deeply entrenched impunity," said Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch.
The intense local and international attention that this case received may have led to a rare set of circumstances where the court could decide on the facts, resulting in a decision that may not be indicative of the judiciary as a whole, Colm said.
I AM VERY HAPPY AND EXCITED FOR THE COURT’S DECISION TO RELEASE ME ON BAIL.
"The fact that the Supreme Court sent the case back is definitely a very welcome development.... But we don't know what will happen at the Appeal Court."
The US embassy said in a release that it hoped "the appeal court will take up the case expeditiously and finally resolve this matter in a way consistent with Cambodian law and international standards of due process".
Suon Sareth, executive secretary at the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, shared Colm's wait-and-see approach.
"When the Cambodian court has a case like this, they can't abruptly drop it. They delay, delay, delay and hope it will be forgotten. When they say they will conduct a new investigation, they will find nothing, and it will take years," he said.
"But we will follow. We will monitor," he promised. "[This] is only a first step in an independent judiciary."
Happy to be free
As Born Samnang was escorted into a car back to prison while his release papers were being processed, he told reporters: "I am very happy and excited for the court's decision to release me."
Sok Sam Oeun's father, Vuon Phon, told the Post, "I'm so happy my son will be released, and I could see him with a big smile".
In addition to requesting a new investigation into Chea Vichea's killing, Peung Yok Hiep, a lawyer representing Chea Mony, the deceased's brother, requested that the pair receive US$50,000 in civil compensation for their time in jail.
Prosecutor Chhoun Chantha remained adamant about the pair's guilt.
"It's normal for the accused to find ways to fool the court in order for them to be released from punishment," he told reporters after the hearing.
But around the courtroom, he was in the minority.
When Judge Dith Monty, the court president, announced his ruling after the four-hour hearing, the audience outside the courtroom burst into applause, ecstatic that the two men would have another chance at freedom.
"I am delighted about the Supreme Court's decision because it will provide a way for further investigations to seek justice for Chea Vichea," said Rong Chhun, a friend of the slain man, who was gunned down at a newspaper stand in 2004.
Though the convictions were widely and repeatedly condemned by local and international rights organisations, many expressed surprise at the court's announcement, temporarily releasing the men and opening the possibility that they could be freed permanently.
'Strange and surprised'
The executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP), Sok Sam Oeun - no relation to the defendant - was stunned.
"I feel strange and surprised because I never trusted the independence of the Supreme Court. I hope this means the judiciary in Cambodia is improving," he said.
Chea Mony, who has condemned the two men's conviction, did not even attend the trial, saying he had lost faith in the Cambodian judicial system.
"However, I now have a newfound confidence in the court system, and I think the investigation at the Appeal Court level will not take as much time as the previous investigation," he said.
The provisional release of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun is, said Sok Sam Oeun of the Cambodian Defenders Project, "the first case in our judicial history of a pretrial release following a Supreme Court case".