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