Born Samnang’s mother Nuon Kimsry (L), Sok Sam Oeun’s sister Voun Chanthy (C), and his wife, Neng Sokhen, sit at the Licadho office in Phnom Penh, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post
Father wrenched away from daughter, son wrenched away from mother, brother from sister, husband from wife.
For the relatives of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, it has been a trying week since the pair’s surprise re-arrest on December 27. Convicted of the 2004 murder of unionist Chea Vichea, Samnang and Sam Oeun were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The verdict saw the men thrown behind bars – for the second time – for a crime of which it is widely believed they are innocent. Perhaps more cruelly, it came this time following nearly four years of freedom, the result of the Supreme Court-ordered provisional release.
“He was so happy that day before going to court, because he assumed he would be officially released,” said Nuon Kimsry, the 52-year-old mother of Samnang.
Clutching a bag of medication she intended to take to Samnang during a visit to Prey Sar prison yesterday – a visit that fell through after the Department of Prisons failed to issue a pass in time – Kimsry spoke in a low, resigned tone. Gaze fixed straight ahead, a tic-like wiping of her face was the only hint of unease.
“He has stomach problems, kidney issues. He can’t sleep well if he doesn’t take his medicine,” explained Kimsry.
“I’m worried about him having no more medication. He only had a little in his pocket.”
Why, after all, would he have brought extra?
On the morning of the verdict, Samnang woke early. He dressed unusually well and beamed at his mother as he left their Tuol Kork home. Hopping on his bicycle, he raced through the streets to the parking lot of a school that he drives buses for. He made his rounds, dropped off the students, and grabbed a moto to the Court of Appeal beaming, once again, at the gallery as he took a seat.
Across the room sat Sam Oeun – cool, composed. He flipped through a notebook, jumped up and walked over to ask a reporter acquaintance to translate this word from Khmer: Autonomous.
Staring at the paper, mouthing the word, the part-time English teacher made his way back to the bench.
Somewhere, across town, his wife and baby daughter were waiting for him. Back in Takeo, his mother and four brothers and sisters went on with their days – unaware that a verdict announcement was at that moment taking place.
“He didn’t even tell me he was supposed to go to court that day,” said Sam Oeun’s sister, Voun Chanthy, 34.
Later, the panicked calls would come, the scramble to figure out what, exactly, was going on. The question has proved impossible to answer.
“Why is he sentenced to jail I’m wondering? He is a good man. He is a teacher. Even when we were young, even with his siblings, he never fought.”
Bouncing while she talks, Chanthy is animated – eager to speak, to right this grave injustice. Sitting at her side, Sam Oeun’s wife, Neng Sokhen, echoes her gestures.
Nursing 2-year-old Phorn Sokthean, shifting the drowsy child from one arm to the other, Sokhen explains how her husband was so convinced he would be released, he urged her not to bother making the three-hour trip to Phnom Penh.
“But I insisted I go. I told him we’re a couple,” she said. Speaking in a rapid clip, she talked of their marriage: arranged; their ceremony: spare. Despite a lack of money and the conviction looming over his head, they were happy.
“We always talked about it, his provisional release. He always reassured me it would be OK, he’d be released soon.”
This is what Sokhen says first, before any other words save a polite hello leave her mouth: “Sokthean always calls for her father. She asks where he is.”