Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Theft case underscores judicial inequality

Theft case underscores judicial inequality

Theft case underscores judicial inequality

The same day Hun Sen's nephew received an 18 month sentence for his role in the deaths

of three people, a construction worker was given four years in jail after allegedly

stealing 2,700 riel.

Nhim Sophea, the Prime Minister's 23-year-old relative, and laborer Kul Vinlay, 25,

were tried at Phnom Penh's Municipal Court on March 11, 2004.

Five months later, the Appeals Court exonerated Sophea. He was cleared of all charges

relating to a 2003 car crash and shooting that left three bystanders dead and four

injured.

Sophea's father told media last year that his son went travelling abroad after being

released.

Vinlay also went to the Appeals Court, which reviewed his case in January and reduced

his sentence to three-and-a-half years. He remains in Prey Sar prison, awaiting a

decision from the Supreme Court.

Vinlay's supporters say his treatment was unjust.

"All the courts want is money, and if you don't pay, you go to jail," said

Vinlay's mother, Ty Neang. "If we weren't poor, my son would be free right now."

The UN Human Rights Office has followed Vinlay's case closely and reported that the

construction worker's experience highlights Cambodia's discriminatory judicial system.

Driving home from a party in October 2003, Sophea and his friends crashed into a

parked truck full of coconuts, killing a worker. When a crowd started to gather,

one member of the group grabbed an AK-47 from the car's trunk and opened fire, killing

two passers-by.

Though reports from witnesses and investigating police named Sophea as the shooter,

the deaths were later blamed on Sam Doeun, a mysterious figure who is still at large.

A municipal court judge convicted Sophea on downgraded charges of involuntary manslaughter.

In August 2004 he was set free in a closed-door session of the Appeals Court.

Robbery charges brought against Vinlay resulted from an attack in June of 2001. The

Stung Meanchey resident and five other young men allegedly beat up a local couple

and made off with 2,700 riel. Neither of the victims was seriously injured.

Vinlay and his family claim he did not participate in the crime, and that he only

knew one of the assailants. They say Vinlay was walking to the market when the other

men invited him to join their group for a couple drinks.

All six then set out for the market together, Vinlay to purchase dessert and the

others to buy dog meat for their drinking session.

"He had no idea of what the others planned to do," said Cambodian Defenders

Project attorney Ke Cham Roeun, who represented Vinlay in the 2005 Appeals Court

hearing. "When they started beating, he shouted for them to stop."

At least one eyewitness, Stung Meanchey resident Sao Bundara, corroborated Vinlay's

story, but was never called to testify despite appearing at the March 2004 trial.

Bundara is currently in Poipet staying with relatives.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court originally handed Vinlay a four-year sentence in absentia

March 14, 2002. When the construction worker was later arrested on January 14, 2004,

"we didn't even know what the charges were against him," his mother said.

Vinlay filed a complaint and was re-tried on the same day Sophea received his sentence,

although different judges presided over the two trials.

"I decided to uphold the original ruling," said Judge Kong Seth, who heard

Vinlay's case. "I didn't call some witnesses because most witnesses just take

sides."

Seth said he couldn't remember what investigating judge was assigned to the case,

even though court documents name him as the official. It is illegal in Cambodia for

one person to serve as both investigating and trial judge on the same criminal case.

During the 2004 trial, Neang charged, court clerk Keo Socheat offered to release

her son for a bribe of $1,000. When she said she only had $200, the deal fell through.

Neang filed separate complaints to the Minstry of Justice and Senate Human Rights

Commission. The ministry dismissed her charge, citing a lack of evidence, and Neang

has not received a response from the commission.

The clerk denied the accusation of corruption.

"Her charge is false; she just accuses me because her son went to jail,"

Socheat said. "I actually gave her money. She came to my office and I offered

her 5,000 riel for a motodop."

During Vinlay's Appeals Court hearing on January 4, 2005, once again no witnesses

for the defense gave testimony.

"I didn't think they looked at the case closely enough," said American

missionary Dale Jones, a family friend who came along for moral support. "The

hearing before [Vinlay's was complex, which] really frustrated the judges and might

have affected their willingness to patiently consider his case."

No date has been set for Vinlay's final appeal to the Supreme Court.

Various legal professionals interviewed by the Post were reluctant to comment on

the relative fairness of the two trials.

Meanwhile, Neang, a widow, struggles to care for her seven other children, who Vinlay

once helped support.

"I am so devastated, even if they shot me to death in the courtroom, I wouldn't

care," Neang said. "All this for 2,700 riel."

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