As Chea Vichea Case Lurches Forward, Old Convictions Still Loom

If Born Samnang feels any fear of being sent back to jail for the 2004 murder of Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea–for which he is out on bail after five years in prison–he hides it well.

Sitting stiffly in his mother’s home on a quiet back alley in Tuol Kok district, Mr Samnang, now 30, hardly sounds like a man with a murder conviction hanging over him. “They will not arrest me again because the Supreme Court found a lack of evidence,” he said earlier this week. “If they have enough evidence they can arrest me again, but they don’t have it.”

Besides, Mr Samnang said, “I am not the killer.”

In January 2009 the Supreme Court granted bail to him and Sok Sam Oeun, 43, who spent five years in prison for the murder along with Mr Samnang. And while legal and rights observers also see little chance that the pair will return to jail, they say justice for the two has been anything but swift.

Chea Vichea, a prominent and outspoken union leader, was shot dead outside the capital’s Wat Langka on Jan 22, 2004.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun guilty of the killing on Aug 1, 2005, a decision that sparked harsh criticism both here and abroad claiming that the investigation was deeply flawed and accusing the court of being under pressure to secure their convictions.

Citing a lack of evidence, the Supreme Court reopened the case in December 2008, granting the pair bail and kicking the case back down to the Court of Appeal, which in turn ordered the Municipal Court to reinvestigate.

In the first formal sign that it had started its reinvestigation, the court last week questioned jailed former municipal police chief Heng Pov. In a 2006 interview Mr Pov said Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun had been framed.

Despite the standing convictions, both men have returned to quiet lives. Mr Sam Oeun farms rice in Takeo province. Mr Samnang drives a moto-taxi around the capital.

Before his arrest, Mr Samnang conceded that he was a less-than-model citizen, burning through his mother’s money to spend long nights out and running up a hefty debt with his employer, a pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

“During that time I went out every day and did bad things toward my mother,” he said.

The debts and carousing got so bad that his mother finally officially disowned him through district police.

He recalled being arrested during a night out, “and the next day my photo was in the paper saying I killed Chea Vichea.”

Mr Samnang still feels anger over the confession he claims the police beat out of him and the five years they stole from him. He blames prison conditions for a chronic sore throat and the stress of the ordeal for a weakened memory.

“Five years is a long time,” he said.

Upon his release, Mr Samnang vowed to redeem himself. He believes he is making progress.

“I have changed my behavior,” he said. “I do as a good son for my mother. Every day I work as a moto-taxi driver and I help my family.”

Mr Samnang tried his hand at construction work soon after leaving prison, but felt too physically drained-from the years of little sleep and less food-to continue. He started English lessons, but struggled with his poor memory and soon dropped the classes to help support his family.

On a good day he can earn up to 20,000 riel, about $4.70, and harbors dreams of saving enough money to upgrade his taxi service from a motorbike to a car.

In the meantime, the Municipal Court will be deciding whether to uphold his conviction for the murder of Chea Vichea.

Mr Samnang believes his professed innocence will see him through.

“I am not afraid of being arrested again because I am not the killer,” he said. “When the case is complete, they will drop the charge.”

Likewise, Mr Sam Oeun said he bore little fear of a repeat arrest.

“I am not afraid the court will arrest me again,” he said in a telephone interview this week.

Amid the rice paddies of Takeo province, Mr Sam Oeun has done his best to put his incarceration behind him. After a ten-day stint at a local pagoda to give thanks for his release, he has remarried and expects his second child in September.

“I am a plastic [fake] killer whom they arrested and jailed for five years,” he said. “It is a bad dream to me.”

Court officials either could not be reached this week or declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, human rights and labor groups have urged the court to overturn its charges against Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun.

The year and a half the pair has spent in legal limbo was “not justice,” said Ham Sun Rith, deputy director of monitoring and protection for rights group Licadho. “The court should drop the [charges] because it has been six years since this case began and they were jailed for five years.”

While Cambodia’s laws set no limit on how long the court may keep the men on bail while it reinvestigates, “it really is not fair,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.

“But the problem in Cambodia is like this,” he said, noting that some of the legal aid group’s clients have been on bail for over a decade.

In such cases, urging the courts to speed up their investigations would make sense assuming those courts are independent.

But sometimes, he said, “we don’t want to wake up the lion.”


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