On Dec 31, the Supreme Court granted bail to Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men convicted for the January 2004 assassination of Free Trade Union President Chea Vichea.
The significance of the pair’s release, though officially temporary, after nearly five years of incarceration, resonated within and beyond the country’s borders.
In press releases and public statements, human rights and union groups, UN bodies and diplomats alike hailed the news that the two were freed.
It was no secret that the weight of public opinion, nationally and internationally, was that the men were ill-fitting scapegoats for one of Cambodia’s most shocking murders.
Never before had a union leader become the target of assassins, though since Chea Vichea’s murder, two other Free Trade Union leaders have been gunned down.
But, in releasing Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the Supreme Court has done something perhaps even more significant than administer justice, it has opened a new window on the lingering mystery surrounding the killing of Chea Vichea, and who gave the order to have him killed.
Chea Vichea was born in the early 1960s in Kratie province’s Chhlong district, the third eldest son in a family of four boys and two girls, according to his brother and current FTU President Chea Mony. Throughout his life, Chea Vichea stood out from his brothers and sisters, Chea Mony said in a recent interview.
“Chea Vichea…was faster, smarter and he was very patient,” he said. “He didn’t argue with neighbors or with his siblings.”
“He would say, ‘Be good,’ and didn’t mind when his brothers and sisters did something wrong,” Chea Mony recounted.
Both of Chea Vichea’s parents were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, while he and his brothers, separated from their sisters, were placed at a labor camp in Battambang province.
“In the Khmer Rouge regime, when they took our parents to be killed, they put us in children units, herding cows and buffaloes in 1976 to 77,” Chea Mony said. “Chea Vichea and I were taking care of cows for older people to use to plough.”
Even during those dark days, Chea Mony said his brother proved himself to be more capable than others, “especially in catching fish and bees” to eat.
After surviving the Khmer Rouge, the Chea siblings lived with their uncle and in 1988 Chea Vichea secured a scholarship to study in Russia, Chea Mony said. When Chea Vichea returned in 1995, he went to work with now opposition party leader Sam Rainsy.
He never married, but at the time of his death he left behind a two-year-old daughter and his partner Chea Kimny who was seven months pregnant with their second child.
Sam Rainsy still clearly remembers the first time he became aware of Chea Vichea.
He had just founded the Khmer Nation Party in 1995 and was helping a tiny human rights group get off the ground.
“At the very beginning I did not notice him,” Sam Rainsy said, recounting how he discovered that a young man-Chea Vichea-had moved into a corner of the group’s office, which was no more than a roof, four pillars and a concrete floor.
To Sam Rainsy, this willingness to live where he worked represented Chea Vichea’s dedication to this work.
“Then I learned that he had just completed his studies in the Soviet Union,” he said, adding that over the years they became close, though Sam Rainsy prefers the term “co-fighters” when describing their relationship rather than friends.
“Even stronger than friends,” he added.
During a single informal meeting in late 1996 Sam Rainsy said that he and Chea Vichea decided to form the Free Trade Union.
At that time there were few unions in the country and despite the dreadful working conditions at newly emerging factories, it was difficult to convince workers to join.
Garment factories were “a new phenomena,” Sam Rainsy said, but added that the issues garment workers faced fit with the policies of the fledgling KNP.
Chea Vichea had already become very active in the KNP and proved to be a natural and charismatic leader, so much so that he became a member of the party’s steering committee.
By 1998, Sam Rainsy said, the union movement had grown and it was time to “detach Chea Vichea from the party.”
Chea Vichea served as president of the FTU for three terms, but remained very active with the KNP and later with the Sam Rainsy Party.
A tireless activist and notorious instigator of wildcat labor strikes, Chea Vichea had more than his fair share of enemies in the garment factory community.
He had been injured in the 1997 grenade attack outside the old National Assembly building where more than a dozen people died, mostly garment factory workers taking part a KNP-organized demonstration against corruption. And in April 2002, he was beaten up by a factory security guard while distributing fliers urging workers to join a May Day demonstration. Threats were a constant and shortly before his murder, Chea Vichea had received a death threat sent by SMS text.
At the time of Chea Vichea killing, Cambodia was almost six months into an 11-month political deadlock following the 2003 national election. The arms of government were all but paralyzed and the country was in a low-intensity crisis.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP had won the election, but failed to obtain the two-thirds majority required to form a government. Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party had joined forces – post election – in the so-called Alliance of Democrats and were using the stalemate as leverage on Hun Sen to negotiate for a stronger position in a government the premier needed a partner to form.
In the run up to the election and then as the post-election stalemate dragged on, the body count mounted in Phnom Penh. Many believed that politics was the motive.
Buddhist monk Sam Bunthoeun was killed outside Wat Lanka in February 2003. Two weeks later senior Funcinpec member Om Radsady was killed at a packed restaurant near Independence Monument. In April, municipal court Judge Sok Sethamony was killed when he stopped his car at traffic lights on Sihanouk Boulevard. In October, singer Touch Srey Nich was shot several times in an attack that left her paralyzed and her mother dead. The same month, pro-Funcinpec radio station journalist Chuor Chetharith was shot in the head outside Ta Prohm radio station near the Russian market.
Chea Vichea had gone into hiding in July 2003, after receiving the telephone text message referring to him as a dog and saying “I want to kill you [on July 26].”
He had good reason to be fearful. He had campaigned tirelessly for the SRP in the run-up to the July 27 general elections, and the FTU was plainly seen as an organ of the opposition party.
As his brother, Chea Mony, puts it: “Chea Vichea had always hit the drums, held meetings and mass demonstrations, which gave the government a headache.”
According to Chea Mony, family and friends fearing for Chea Vichea’s life tried to persuade the union leader to lay low.
“Our siblings were scared, telling him to give up,” Chea Mony said, adding that he encouraged his brother to go on.
“If everyone is afraid like this, criminals will strengthen their power, walking around doing bad things and making threats,” he said.
Chea Vichea had been taking precautions for months but on the morning of Jan 22, 2004, the first day of Chinese New Year, he stopped to read a newspaper at a newsstand near Phnom Penh’s Wat Lanka.
He was a regular at the newsstand, according to the newsstand’s owner Var Sothy, and there was nothing unusual on the morning of Jan 22 when Chea Vichea sat on a small stool to read a paper.
According to witnesses at the time, Chea Vichea didn’t look up or even notice the man who dismounted from a back of a Honda motorcycle and walked towards the newsstand.
The man hung around for more than a dozen minutes also reading newspapers – obviously sizing up his target and his escape route – then pulled out a hand gun and fired three shots at point-blank range into Chea Vichea’s head, chest and left arm. He then walked back to the waiting motorcycle, which drove away at a normal speed toward Sihanouk Boulevard.
Chea Vichea died immediately, still holding the paper he had been reading.
The news of his death spread fast, police and journalists arrived within minutes, and the significance of the latest killing was not lost on anyone: The union leader who had secured the country’s first ever minimum wage for garment factory workers had been slain in broad daylight on a busy street.
The killing made international news on CNN, the BBC and Asian Network News.
The US Embassy immediately condemned the “cowardly murder” of Chea Vichea, calling him “a champion of labor rights and the free trade union movement in Cambodia.”
Well aware of the following Chea Vichea had, the US Embassy also called for restraint from all sides “so that this tragedy will not be compounded by further violence,” and asked the government to ensure the security of labor organizers and Chea Vichea’s family.”
The government was immediately under pressure. Members of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, a group of teacher and student groups, labor unions and a farmer’s association, vowed to organize a mass demonstration if the government did not find Chea Vichea’s killers within a week.
The pressure continued to build the next day, when messages condemning the killing were sent from around the world as preparations began for what became a massive funeral for the deceased union leader.
In letter dated Jan 22, 2004, US Senator John McCain, a future presidential candidate, weighed in on the murder.
“Given the possible political nature of this and other killings of SRP activists, the government has a special responsibility to hold those who committed these crimes accountable,” he wrote.
Then-US Senate majority leader Bill Frist also sounded off on the murder in a statement, saying, “Those of us in the Senate who care about Cambodia will continue to hold Prime Minister Hun Sen directly accountable for the deteriorating state of affairs in that country.”
Then-King Norodom Sihanouk wrote a letter lamenting the increase in politically motivated killings.
“The murders, assassinations of which the ‘background’ is undeniably political, multiply, alas!, here, in Cambodia ‘Fatherland of Angkor,'” the King wrote in a statement posted on his Web site.
John Sweeny, president of the US labor union AFL-CIO, which represented 13 million US workers and is a major lobbying force in Washington, wrote in a draft letter to Hun Sen that “this was a political killing, and one that you could have prevented,” referring to the death threat Chea Vichea received in July 2003.
“[Chea] Vichea’s killing tears at the new fabric of Cambodian civil society and its economy. Your government is flirting with economic disaster,” Sweeny wrote.
Sam Rainsy immediately launched accusations against Hun Sen, accusing the government of having a hand in the murder and demanding that he step down as prime minister.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said at the time that the killing of Chea Vichea may have been the result of personal disputes within his own organization or a problem linked to a factory.
At the time of the killing, Phnom Penh’s deputy police chief was none other than Heng Pov-a notorious figure now serving 58 years in prison for a host of crimes, including killing Judge Sok Sethamony.
Heng Pov, who would head up the Chea Vichea murder investigation, said early on that police suspected that a former acquaintance of Chea Vichea was behind the slaying.
“We suspect the guy who always walks with Chea Vichea and now he has split from Chea Vichea,” he told reporters the day after the killing.
The FTU, had never been so united, and on Jan 25 tens of thousands of mourners marched silently down Monivong and Sihanouk boulevards for Chea Vichea’s funeral.
Despite the differences in opinion regarding possible motives, the need for authorities to solve Chea Vichea’s murder was amplified by mounting pressure from the international community over the other unsolved assassinations on Phnom Penh’s streets.
It was easy to see why the killing of Chea Vichea had to be solved – and quickly.
On Jan 26, Heng Pov released a pencil-line sketch of a man, saying that police believed him to be Chea Vichea’s killer. He said the killer was a man, about 24-years-old, with a history of gang activity and drug use.
Heng Pov also pronounced, before any arrests were made or court investigation started, that Chea Vichea’s murder had nothing to do with politics.
Questions immediately arose over how police obtained the sketch of the suspect.
Var Sothy, the newsstand owner and closest witness to the murder, said that she didn’t give any description of the killer to police, though she had seen him clearly.
Heng Pov refused to provide details, but in his usual flamboyant style predicted that the investigation into Chea Vichea’s killing would be solved within a week.
On Jan 28, amid reports that police were rounding up suspects, Heng Pov scolded human rights groups and the media for their inquiries into the investigation. He then announced that four suspects had been arrested.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen responded to the accusations against him and his government, saying that he could not have prevented any of the killings, including the murder of Chea Vichea.
“Murders actually happen all over the world. Even in the US, they could not prevent [the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US] that left thousands of people dead. But people never asked the US president to step down,” he said.
“Just a few deaths here, they ask me to step down,” he added.
One week after the killing, on Jan 29, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were paraded in front of reporters as the two men responsible for the assassination of Chea Vichea.
Police made promises that more arrests were to come as the pair were hauled into police headquarters, handcuffed with black sacks over their heads.
Then-municipal police chief Suon Chheangly claimed that the two men were promised $5,000 to carry out the killing of Chea Vichea and had already received $1,500 each up front.
The pair cried and screamed out to the press, claiming their innocence and begging for help. After they were taken from the room, Heng Pov and Suon Chheangly declared that more arrests would be made and that police would capture the mastermind of the assassination. That never happened.Then in a bizarre about face, one day after proclaiming his innocence, Born Samnang was presented to the press one again, but this time he was freely admitting to his guilt. He said that he was the one who had pulled the trigger on Chea Vichea and named Sok Sam Oeun as his accomplice. Sok Sam Oeun held firm to his claim of innocence.
That same day, Hun Sen and the government filed lawsuits against Sam Rainsy for defamation and insulting the premier in response to his allegations that the CPP was behind the killing.
On Feb 1, as CPP leaders lauded the arrests, then-US Ambassador Charles Ray praised the government’s handing of the investigation.
Ray told reporters that the investigation had been “professional and proper” and that it was premature to label the killing political.
But not everyone involved in the investigation was as confident as the ambassador.
A legal official involved closely in the early stages of the Chea Vichea investigation, and who spoke recently on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that at the time, it was obvious that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not guilty.
The official outlined several reasons why, specifically, Born Samnang could not have committed the crime, despite now confessing to have been involved.
During his confession, Born Samnang’s account of how he killed Chea Vichea didn’t match what witnesses saw on Jan 22, the legal official said. Born Samnang told investigators he was 3 meters away when he shot the union leader, while witnesses said the killer was no more than a meter away. Born Samnang said he and Sok Sam Oeun drove south after firing his gun, but the police report said the killers drove north, as did newsstand owner Var Sothy, the official said. Other details, according to the official just didn’t add up. For example, Born Samnang claimed that he and Sok Sam Oeun counted and split up their share of the advance payment of $3,000 for the killing while they were fleeing the scene on motorcycle, he said. Born Samnang also confessed to first meeting Sok Sam Oeun at a party the night before the killing, the official said. “How could you trust someone you just met in a murder?” the official asked.
And the Phnom Penh Municipal Court wasn’t convinced either.
On March 19, 2004 municipal court Investigating Judge Hing Thirith dismissed the case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, citing a lack of evidence.
Hing Thirith apparently paid a price for his decision. Five days later he was removed from his position at the municipal court for judicial mistakes that were never clearly identified. He was transferred to the remote Stung Treng Provincial Court and remains there to this day.
On June 1, 2004, Appeal Court Judge Thou Mony overturned Hing Thirith’s decision and ordered that the murder charges against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun be reinstated.
Then when the case went to trial on Aug 1, 2005, Born Samnang publicly recanted his confession at the municipal court, saying that he had been beaten, coerced and threatened by police.
He also accused police of bribing him with money and prostitutes while in custody and gifts in prison to get him to plead guilty to killing Chea Vichea. And numerous eyewitnesses also placed Born Samnang in Prey Veng province at the time of the murder.
Nevertheless, presiding Judge Kong Set said that based on testimony from witnesses – who did not appear in court-the pair were without a doubt, guilty of killing Chea Vichea.
He sentenced them both to 20 years in prison.
Kong Set is now the Kompong Speu Provincial Court prosecutor, and is currently embroiled in a corruption investigation that has led Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana to call for his resignation.
Kong Set maintains he is innocent of the allegations made by the minister, and to this day says that he was not pressured by anyone to find Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun guilty.
Following their sentencing, appeals were filed and the Appeal Court scheduled a hearing for Oct 6, 2006. But the hearing was cancelled after one of the three judges who were to hear the case called in sick with diarrhea.
It wasn’t until April 6, 2007 that the Appeal Court finally heard the appeal by the two men against their conviction.
Despite a signed statement from newsstand owner and witness, Var Sothy, that the pair were not the killers, Appeal Court Judge Saly Theara said it was inadmissible as evidence as Var Sothy was not physically present to testify.
With the help of the UN, Var Sothy had fled Cambodia fearing for her life in the aftermath of witnessing the Chea Vichea murder.
According to her written testimony, which was notarized by a lawyer in Bangkok, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not the men who showed up at her newsstand on Jan 22, 2004, to kill Chea Vichea. What’s more, Var Sothy wrote, the real killer re-visited her newsstand in the months after Chea Vichea’s murder in a bid to frighten hear.
The Appeal Court, however, did call for a reinvestigation of the case, saying that there were some loopholes in the original investigation, but upheld the municipal court’s guilty verdict.
On Dec 31, 2008, and after years of pressure from a myriad of groups calling for their release, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were granted bail by the Supreme Court, which also ordered a reinvestigation into the murder.
Now, five years to the week after his killing, there are more questions than answers regarding the murder of Chea Vichea.
And in the intervening years since 2004, many of the police officers involved in the original investigation are either in prison themselves, on the run, or dead.
Heng Pov was dramatically deported from Malaysia in 2006 after he fled Cambodia and tried in vain to get asylum in a third country, saying he knew too many dirty secrets about senior police and government officials to return.
In an interview with France’s largest-circulation weekly newsmagazine L’Express published on Aug 17, 2006, Heng Pov claimed, among other things, that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were framed for the murder of Chea Vichea.
Heng Pov also alleged in the interview that several days after Chea Vichea’s death, the late National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy informed him that the perpetrators, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had been arrested solely on the basis of an accusation made to police.
“It did not take long for me to understand that the two suspect, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder,” Heng Pov said, according to the magazine.
Hok Lundy died in a helicopter crash in November.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth said last week that no order has yet been received from the courts ordering a re-opening of the Chea Vichea murder case.
Touch Naruth also dismissed criticism of the original police investigation, saying that the now disgraced and incarcerated Heng Pov was only one man, and he could not affect the integrity of the entire investigation.
“Heng Pov’s issue…can’t reflect on the police as a whole,” he said.
Appeal Court Deputy President Chuon Sunleng said last week that he didn’t know when exactly the reinvestigation would begin.
“Wait for the case files to be sent back [to the Appeal Court] first,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure if the Supreme Court had sent the case file to the his court yet.
For Alonzo Suson, country program director for American Center for International Labor Solidarity, also known as the Solidarity Center, the saddest thing about Chea Vichea’s death is that it has not left a lasting legacy.
On the day of Chea Vichea’s funeral, tens of thousands of ordinary people turned out to mourn his passing.
On Thursday, the fifth anniversary of Chea Vichea’s death, no more than 500 people were in attendance at the annual ceremony to mark the day.
The unions, the largest civil society organization within the country, missed an important opportunity to unite behind a common cause-Chea Vichea, Suson said.
“The fact that at his funeral there were over 20,000…it could have served to unify the more democratic unions-that didn’t happen,” he said in a recent interview, adding that there are more unions than ever but they are marked by division and politicization.
Prince Norodom Sirivudh, then Funcinpec secretary-general, said at Chea Vichea’s funeral in 2004 that his death was not in vain.
“You kill one Chea Vichea, but there will be hundreds of Chea Vicheas,” the prince said. “There will be thousands and thousands and millions the day we get this kind of union of democratic forces to fight for justice.”
That has not happened, Suson said: “There is no lesson. It’s a sad thing.”
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