After spending nearly five years in prison for allegedly killing union leader Chea Vichea in 2004, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun woke up free men for the first time Thursday.
The Supreme Court decision that triggered their release from PJ Prison at about 7:30 pm Wednesday was the last hope for the pair, who had been jailed since January 2004, shortly after Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight near Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka.
The long, winding court process was draining, both men said Thursday.
The case was initially thrown out by Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Heng Thirith in 2004 for lack of evidence, but the judge was removed from the court four days later. Charges were then reinstated June 1, 2004, by the Appeal Court. A second municipal court judge, Kong Set, found Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun guilty on Aug 1, 2005 and issued 20-year prison sentences. The Appeal Court upheld that decision on April 12, 2007.
As a result, freedom was almost unimaginable, Born Samnang said Thursday while resting at his family’s Tuol Kok district home.
“Yesterday, I didn’t expect that I would be able to come home…. Something we could not imagine has turned out good. I cried tears because I was so happy,” he said.
Being in jail was difficult, Born Samnang said, but he was allowed out of his 12-person cell for 20 minutes, four times a week.
He also had good company: “Even though the people inside were convicts we were a brotherhood and they were like uncles and aunts, living together, we liked each other.”
Sok Sam Oeun had a far more difficult time, he said Thursday while at office of the local rights group Licadho. He spent the night there with his parents, and they will eventually travel to their home in Takeo province.
Meanwhile, he appeared dazed and overwhelmed Thursday morning.
Sok Sam Oeun said his 14-person cell was cramped, and that prison guards physically and mentally abused him, threatening his life on more than one occasion.
“It was very suffering. Very difficult. Sometimes they don’t have mats for sleeping. The food was very dirty and there was little. Most people had no one to encourage them,” he said in fractured English.
“They want to kill me in the cell, then they want to destruct us in our cell. Then they open the lights. They come to ask for cigarettes from the people in the cell, ask for a box. They don’t have the money! ….and after they close, turn off the lights. Three times, four times, five times. I’m angry. I’ve very hot. I’m very suffer. Why they do like this to us? Why they look down at us. Like pigs. They are the man. We are the pigs….and after, I talk with him, and he said that I want to kill you. Tomorrow morning, I will go to kill you in the cell. They say like this.”
Similar threats came “many times,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
Upon their release Wednesday, a large crowd greeted their freedom, including relatives, Chea Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony, and workers from Licadho, that has been one of many groups offering assistance because of the widespread belief that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were framed.
The group then went to Phnom Penh’s Nhean Raingsey pagoda so monks could bless the freed men in an attempt to wash their “bad luck” away, Sok Sam Oeun said.
His plans for the future are simple: “I want to hug everyone that I love,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun also wants to get a haircut, walk along the riverside and visit his 11-year-old daughter, he said.
Both men said they relished their first post-prison meals because for the first time in years, food was plentiful.
Sok Sam Oeun said he ate chicken soup and stir fry at the Licadho office, while Born Samnang dined on a home-cooked meal with his family: “Food at home is far more delicious,” he said.
The first night of sleep was also memorable, both men also said. For Born Samnang, however: “It took me a long time to go to sleep because I was so happy.”
His mind was racing until past 2 am with what will come next, he said Thursday.
“First, I was glad of having my freedom and secondly I thought about what I have to do from now on because my family, my mother, is facing poverty, so I need to find something to help her as my payback to her for what I have done wrong before.”
Redemption was high on Born Samnang’s mind he repeated again and again, because past bad behavior caused his mother to disown him.
“I didn’t think of anything. I just hung out, wasting my home’s belongings and taking her money to spend,” he said.
“Because of my hanging out a lot and my mother disowning me, [former Municipal Police Chief] Heng Pov took the opportunity to put me inside the prison, in the case of painting color [being framed],” he explained.
“During those five years, I have learned what is right. What is wrong. And the meaning of family and freedom,” he added.
Sok Sam Oeun, on the other hand, focused on appreciation.
“I am grateful to all the NGOs, national and international, Amnesty International, and the retired King and all the leaders in Cambodia who have offered mercy to me, their son and grandson. I am happy. Nothing could compare to this,” he said.