The legal aid NGO defending two men convicted of the 2004 murder of union leader Chea Vichea expressed confidence Monday that they would win their appeal Friday, after the key eye witness to the killing proclaimed their innocence.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said if the court rules that Va Sothy’s statement is admissible, and also considers the testimony of multiple alibis for his two clients, they should go free.
But Appeals Court Judge Saly Theara said the court is not legally obliged to accept the new testimony from Va Sothy, which clears Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, unless she attends the Friday hearing.
In a statement written in August in Bangkok, where she was seeking asylum with the UN for fear of her life, Va Sothy said she is certain Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun—who is not related to the CDP executive director—did not kill Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea.
A copy of her statement, which was thumbprinted and signed in the presence of a Bangkok-based notary lawyer on Aug 10, was obtained Sunday.
Va Sothy, who ran the Phnom Penh newsstand where Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight Jan 22, 2004, said she was told to remain silent in the wake of the killing by now-disgraced former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov. Va Sothy added that she feared for her life if she remained in Cambodia.
“The court can accept anything that we give them, but the problem or the issue is whether they will accept this,” the CDP’s Sok Sam Oeun said of Va Sothy’s testimony.
Sok Sam Oeun said he felt there was around a 70 percent chance of the court accepting the statement.
Saly Theara said a panel of three judges will have to vote on Friday on whether they can accept Va Sothy’s statement. But he warned that the chances of this happening are slim.
“By law, a witness must be sworn in, so any statement without swearing in, we cannot accept,” he said.
Born Samnang’s girlfriend, her mother, brother and other relatives testified in the original trial in August 2005 that he was at their home in Prey Veng province celebrating the Chinese New Year the morning Chea Vichea was gunned down.
Sok Sam Oeun has also said he was celebrating Chinese New Year at the time of the murder, drinking at a friend’s house.
Both men said following their arrests that they had never met before, and denied the allegations against them.
Mu Sochua, former minister of women’s affairs and now a member of the SRP, said the original trial of the men was “a mockery of justice.”
She added that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun had no reason to want to kill Chea Vichea.
“Chea Vichea was a true leader who wanted justice for the workers,” she said. “Killing Chea Vichea was totally an objective by someone to weaken the workers’ movement.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap noted that Chea Vichea’s brother Chea Mony, who now heads the FTU, has claimed the government was behind the killing. Cheam Yeap said the allegation was groundless.
“The government does not have free time to kill people,” Cheam Yeap said. “The government is working hard to offer people development,” he said.
“Chea Vichea was just a simple union leader, he was not a hero,” he added.
Thun Saray, director of local rights group Adhoc, said that even without Va Sothy’s statement there is more than enough evidence for the court to release the two men.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said she was also hopeful the two men will be freed.
She said that the court should now focus on establishing who actually killed Chea Vichea.
“If they’re innocent, I hope the court will try to find the real killers,” she said.