Case That Echoes Chea Vichea Lives in Its Shadows

While his arrest, trial and conviction closely mirror those tried in the murder case of union leader Chea Vichea, Thach Saveth’s near­ly seven-year legal battle—which is to end Wednesday at the Supreme Court—has mustered noticeably less public attention.

Convicted in 2005 for killing Free Trade Union representative Ros Sovannareth, the 28-year-old former RCAF paratrooper maintained he was wrongfully charged with shooting the union officials just as the two accused killers of FTU president Chea Vichea have stated.

And just as with Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang—the pair jailed but later freed over Chea Vichea’s death—rights groups support Mr Saveth’s claim of innocence and denounce his trial as unfair.

But the path of the two cases di­ver­ges when it comes to recognition.

Mr Sam Oeun’s and Mr Sam­nang’s fight for justice became a rallying point for those seeking to reform Cambodia’s legal system, whereas the daytime killing of Chea Vichea represented a nadir for workers’ rights and freedoms. The murder and subsequent police investigation were even the subject of a scathing documentary that auth­orities here have prevented from being screened publicly.

But for Mr Saveth, reactions to his legal troubles have been more subdued—overshadowed by the high-profile cases of Chea Vichea and Hy Vuthy, another FTU leader whose February 2007 murder remains unsolved.

“Vichea was an important person, the leader of the union and the government thought that he was good at working with the SRP and leading protests,” said Chea Mony, brother and presidential successor to Chea Vichea. “As we know in our country, some cases can be solved while some can’t be.”

Nonetheless, Mr Saveth has taken his appeal to the Supreme Court, which heard his case last week and will deliver its verdict on Wednesday, Judge Yos Sokhoeun said.

Sam Charoeun, Mr Saveth’s lawyer, declined to hazard a guess on which way the court would decide but said his client should be set free.

“According to the case documents, it shows that the people who set up the case of Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang are the same who set up the case of my client.”

Those familiar with Mr Saveth’s case said timing and stature played a big part in keeping the focus on Chea Vichea’s murder and trial. Chea Vichea was the first of the three labor leaders to die and served as president of the entire organization. Ros Sovannareth’s death took place later and he served as a subordinate to Chea Vichea.

“Chea Vichea was more famous than Ros Sovannareth,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center. “Ros Sovannareth was only a local labor leader.”

Ros Sovannareth was gunned down while riding his motorcycle in the Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district in the evening of May 7, 2004. According to witnesses, two men pulled up along side Ros Sovannareth as he was returning home from work and opened fire. The two men stopped and fired once more into his body after Ros Sovannareth tumbled off his bike.

Chea Vichea was fatally shot just months before in January at a sidewalk newsstand in Phnom Penh.

Initially, there were also strong alibis and evidence clearing Mr Sam Oeun and Mr Samnang of any wrongdoing, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project. In addition, both Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun had an outspoken defense that sought the ear of the media and human rights activists.

“The Chea Vichea case had a very vocal defense that helped,” said Mr Sam Oeun, who is of no relation to the released convict.

Human rights groups, garment buyers and the media condemned Chea Vichea’s death and criticized the trial of Mr Sam Oeun and Mr Samnang, who were widely believed to have been framed. The Phnom Penh court nonetheless convicted both men and the pair spent nearly five years in prison before the Supreme Court released them on bail and ordered the Court of Appeal to reinvestigate the case.

Mr Tola said the evidence against Mr Saveth was slim and that was impossible for him to have been at the scene of the crime. Mr Tola said interviews he conducted with Mr Saveth revealed he was traveling to Siem Reap City from Anlong Veng district in Oddar Meanchey province the day Ros Sovannareth was shot.

“The government should conduct a reinvestigation to find the real perpetrators for not only Ros Sovannareth but for all three FTU leaders who were killed,” he said.



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