Chea Vichea Case Puts Judicial Process on Trial

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.


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