Chea Vichea Convicts Confident of Vindication

If Born Samnang feels any fear of being sent back to jail for the 2004 murder of Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea–for which he is out on bail after nearly five years in prison–he hides it well.

Sitting stiffly in his mother’s home on a quiet back alley in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district, Mr Samnang, now 30, hardly sounds like a man with a possible murder conviction hanging over him.

Mr Samnang and his fellow convict, Sok Sam Oeun, 43, were granted bail in December 2008 by the Supreme Court, which reopened the investigation into the assassination.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court this month made the first outward sign that this new investigation was going ahead when it questioned the disgraced former municipal police chief Heng Pov, who said while on the lam in 2006 that Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun had been framed.

In an interview last week, Mr Samnang said that, though he and Mr Sam Oeun have yet to be acquitted, the Supreme Court had essentially vindicated them.

“They will not arrest me again because the Supreme Court found a lack of evidence,” he said. “If they have enough evidence they can arrest me again but they don’t have it.”

Besides, Mr Samnang said, “I am not the killer.”

Chea Vichea, a prominent and outspoken union leader, was shot dead outside the capital’s Wat Langka on Jan 22, 2004.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun guilty of the killing in August 2005, a verdict that was rejected around the world and defended by almost no one except the Cambodian police.

Despite the standing convictions, both men have returned to quiet lives. Mr Sam Oeun farms rice in Takeo province. Mr Samnang is a motorcycle taxi driver in the capital.

Before his arrest, Mr Samnang conceded that he was a less-than-model citizen, burning through his mother’s money to spend long nights out and running up a hefty debt with his employer, a pharmaceuticals wholesaler.

“During that time I went out every day and did bad things toward my mother,” he said.

The debts and carousing got so bad that his mother finally officially disowned him through district police. He recalled being arrested during a night out, “and the next day my photo was in the paper saying I killed Chea Vichea.”

Mr Samnang still feels anger over the confession he claims the police beat out of him and the five years he says they stole from him. He blames prison conditions for a chronic sore throat and the stress of the ordeal for a weakened memory.

“Five years is a long time,” he said.

Upon his release, Mr Samnang vowed to redeem himself. He said he believed he was making progress.

“I have changed my behavior,” he said. “I do as a good son for my mother. Every day I work as a motorcycle taxi driver and I help my family.”

Mr Samnang tried his hand at construction soon after leaving prison but felt too physically drained–from the years of little sleep and even less food–to continue. He started English lessons but struggled with his poor memory and soon dropped the classes to help support his family.

On a good day he can earn up to 20,000 riel, or about $5, and harbors dreams of saving enough money to upgrade his taxi service from a motorcycle to a car.

In the meantime, the municipal court will be deciding whether to uphold his conviction for the murder of Chea Vichea.

Mr Samnang believes his professed innocence will see him through.

“I am not afraid of being arrested again because I am not the killer,” he said. “When the case is complete, they will drop the charge.”

Likewise, Mr Sam Oeun said he bore little fear of a repeat arrest.

“I am not afraid the court will arrest me again,” he said in a telephone interview this week.

Amid the rice paddies of Takeo province, Mr Sam Oeun has done his best to put his incarceration behind him. After a ten-day stint at a local pagoda to give thanks for his release, he has remarried and expects his second child in September.

“I am a plastic [fake] killer whom they arrested and jailed for five years,” he said. “It is a bad dream to me.”

Court officials either could not be reached this week or declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, human rights and labor groups have urged the court to overturn its charges against Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun.

The year and a half the pair has spent in legal limbo was “not justice,” said Ham Sun Rith, deputy director of monitoring and protection for the human rights group Licadho. “The court should drop the [charges] because it has been six years since this case began and they were jailed for five years.”

While Cambodia’s laws set no limit on how long the court may keep the men on bail while it reinvestigates, “it really is not fair,” said Sok Sam Oeun, the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project who is not personally related to the convict of the same name.

“But the problem in Cambodia is like this,” he said, noting that some of the legal aid group’s clients have been on bail for over a decade.

In such cases, urging the courts to speed up their investigations would make sense assuming those courts were independent.

But sometimes, he said, “we don’t want to wake up the lion.”


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