svay rieng town – A district police officer and two accomplices were convicted on Monday of the robbery and murder of a Sam Rainsy Party candidate one month before February’s commune council elections.
Police officer Preap Sam Ol, 36, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for killing reserve election candidate Touch Sean—a widow with four children—and an additional five years for robbery.
Accomplices Keo Thy, 36, and Teng Savon, 35, were each sentenced to five years in prison for robbery.
Presiding Judge Pen Sarith also ordered the three men to pay the family of the slain woman 5 million riel ($1,280) in compensation.
The hearing was the second in the case of Touch Sean, whose murder just weeks before the commune elections sparked vocal claims from the Sam Rainsy Party that its candidates were being killed for political reasons.
Police deny any political motive in the killing of Touch Sean, who was one of four candidates and activists from the opposition party and Funcinpec to die violently over a three-day period in January. Three of the dead were women.
Touch Sean was heard by neighbors pleading with her attackers that she was “a simple person” before she was shot once in the chest. Three more bullets were fired into the dead woman’s home as the killers fled the scene with an amount of gold, court officials said.
Monday’s court case opened with a request from the three suspects to throw the case out because of lack of evidence.
An earlier court hearing on June 13 was postponed by Svay Rieng Provincial Court because witnesses failed to appear and forensic evidence was unavailable, court officials said.
Defense lawyers for the three suspects argued throughout the three-hour hearing that police evidence against their clients was either false, highly suspect or—in the case of confessions to the killing and robbery—obtained by force.
“My client denies his alleged confession and says he was threatened and beaten to make statements,” said Sok Seam, lawyer for police officer Preap Sam Ol.
Sok Seam also argued that no one witnessed his client with the murder weapon—a police issue AK-47 rifle. His client’s conviction was also based on the testimony of the dead woman’s teenage son who claims his mother whispered the officer’s name before dying.
Chum Sovannaly, lawyer for the two other defendants, also claimed his clients’ confessions were coerced.
In summing up the case Court Prosecutor Chum Samban dismissed the allegations of police brutality and forced confessions, saying the suspects had no marks or bruises to support their claims.
Delivering his sentence, Judge Pen Sarith said Preap Sam Ol was guilty of inviting Keo Thy and Teng Savon to carry out the robbery. Forensic evidence from the Interior Ministry proved the gun that killed Touch Sean was Preap Sam Ol’s weapon, the judge said.
Both defense lawyers said they would appeal the stiff sentences.
“I will complain to the Appeal Court. There was not enough evidence to convict,” Preap Sam Ol’s lawyer Sok Seam said. Lawyer Chum Sovannaly said he would not appeal the five year jail terms for Keo Thy and Teng Savon, but he would appeal to reduce the amount of compensation to the victim’s family as his clients could not afford to pay.
Sam Rainsy Party Cabinet Chief Phi Thach remained adamant on Monday the killing of Touch Sean was politically motivated.
“Unfortunately the court said it was criminal but I believe it was very political,” Phi Thach said.
At least 17 commune candidates or activists from the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec were killed in the run up to the recent commune elections.
The UN claimed local police and officials were involved in orchestrating much of the pre-election intimidation and violence. Convictions have been successful in only six of the killing cases, but human rights workers have criticized authorities in those case for convicting the wrong people or not following the legal process.
Villagers in the Svay Chrum district of Svay Rieng province where Touch Sean was killed believe she was killed for political reasons, a human rights worker said after the court case.
As the three handcuffed men were escorted from the Svay Rieng courthouse relatives broke into tears.
“I don’t have rice to feed my family. I can’t pay the compensation,” wailed the wife of one of the convicted men as he was led away.