For almost two months, under intense pressure from inside the country and abroad, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Hing Thirith compiled evidence against two men who police accused of killing Chea Vichea.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun had been arrested days after the union leader was gunned down on Jan 22, 2004. Besides a confession from Born Samnang, police had gathered statements from several witnesses who said they saw the two men in the city that morning.
In the weeks following, cracks started to appear in the case as witnesses contradicted statements police attributed to them, and alibis for the two men surfaced.
On March 19, 2004, Hing Thirith decided to dismiss the charges saying there wasn’t enough evidence to try the two men, and calling Born Samnang’s confession “irregular.”
Prosecutor Khut Sokheng appealed Hing Thirith’s decision, eventually getting it overturned in an Appeals Court hearing and Hing Thirith was transferred to Stung Treng provincial court for unknown reasons.
The Appeals Court ordered further investigation into the case, a responsibility that fell to Investigating Judge Meas Sovann.
But on Thursday, Meas Sovann said that besides asking three police officers whether they had pressured and tried to bribe Born Samnang into confessing, no new evidence was gathered.
“I investigated this case for half a month after it returned from the Appeals Court,” Meas Sovann said. “The police testified like they did in court. Police denied giving any money to Born Samnang.”
No new attempts to interview witnesses were made as the police officers’ testimony was taken as fact, the judge said.
On Monday, Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang were convicted in a trial that has been criticized by retired King Norodom Sihanouk, the US, and international and local human rights groups and trade unions.
Phnom Penh Municipal Presiding Judge Kong Set, who sentenced the two men to 20 years in prison, defended his decision Thursday and said he did nothing wrong because the evidence presented left him no doubt as to who killed Chea Vichea.
“I did not hate Born Samnang or Sok Sam Oeun but they broke the law,” Kong Set said. “The witnesses to defend the suspects cannot balance with the evidence and Born Samnang’s confession.”
Critics have said the police reports—which left many questions unanswered—were meaningless in court because the witnesses never appeared. Critics have claimed that defense witnesses who provided alibis for Born Samnang weren’t even considered during Kong Set’s deliberations.
“I tried the suspects based on the evidence,” Kong Set said. “The court wanted to help him but they needed to find more evidence to defend him. I don’t believe the NGOs’ claim [that] Born Samnang was a good guy.”
He also dismissed critics’ statements. “What I did was not wrong by the law,” he said.
Observers have long alleged the case has been tainted by politics. On Thursday, Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said the judiciary is controlled by the government more than ever.
“Judges and prosecutors, some of them try to be independent. But now they are so afraid. It is not like before,” he said.
Thun Saray blamed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “iron fist” crackdown for corruption within the judiciary, in which two court officials have been fired and three, including Hing Thirith, suspended.
“Just one phone call is enough” to pressure them, Thun Saray said. “They cannot maintain their independence.”
One judge who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed that court officials working on highly political cases—like the Chea Vichea case—have no choice but to follow the government’s line.
“A lot of prosecutors and judges are working in fear,” the judge said. “They are not independent. There is fear and a lack of transparency because the [court] system and [government] are not separate.”
The judge described the Chea Vichea case as “very big.”
“All civil society and the NGOs criticize the decision, and the international community, and I think they are correct,” the judge said.
Kong Set said he was not pressured into making a decision, adding that the “iron fist” campaign had not affected him.