Two more international human rights groups and the world’s largest trade union confederation on Sunday called on the Supreme Court to “exonerate and free” the two men serving 20-year prison sentences for the 2004 killing of Free Trade Union President Chea Vichea.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who despite several witnesses attesting to their innocence and repeated appeals from human rights groups on their behalf, have been behind bars for nearly five years.
“Cambodian authorities should exonerate and free Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were unfairly sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2005 for the murder of labor leader Chea Vichea,” Human Rights Watch, the International Trade Union Confederation and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said in the joint statement.
“The investigation into the high-profile murder was marred by alleged police brutality and forced confession by one of the suspects, intimidation of witnesses and political interference in the judicial process,” the statement added.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith blasted the latest statement from international groups who have weighed in on the case, saying, “They are ignorant of the law.”
“The one who says [Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are] innocent should give evidence to the court, not just the media,” Khieu Kanharith said by telephone.
If the Supreme Court upholds the guilty verdict against the two men, they can file an appeal to King Norodom Sihamoni for amnesty, he added.
Outspoken union leader Chea Vichea was shot dead in broad daylight while reading a newspaper at a newsstand on Jan 22, 2004.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested a week later, and on March 19, 2004, presiding Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Heng Thirith dismissed the case against them for lack of evidence.
However, four days later Heng Thirith was removed from the Phnom Penh court and on June 1, 2004, the Appeal Court reinstated the murder charges.
On Aug 1, 2005, the men were then found guilty by the municipal court, a decision that was upheld by the Appeal Court on April 12, 2007.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid NGO the Cambodian Defenders Project, said Sunday that the Supreme Court can only rule on the legal aspects of the Appeal Court decision and cannot order the pair’s release.
“If the Supreme Court modifies the decision of the Appeal Court, the case will be sent back to the Appeal Court again,” he said, adding that he didn’t believe that would be the likely scenario.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap on Sunday defended the country’s much-criticized courts, saying that despite a “small amount of people who are corrupt,” they were still competent. “I believe in Cambodia’s courts,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)