Citing a lack of evidence, the Appeal Court ordered the reinvestigation of the case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men who were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in the 2004 slaying of union leader Chea Vichea.
Widely considered to have been wrongfully convicted, the pair served almost five years in prison for the Free Trade Union president’s killing until the Supreme Court released them on bail on Dec 31, 2008, and ordered the Appeal Court to reinvestigate the case. In its first hearing in the case since then, the Appeal Court yesterday affirmed that the case will indeed be reinvestigated.
“Now, we cannot overturn the verdict that found them guilty yet as we need to reinvestigate more and [for now] you have normal freedom,” presiding Judge Choun Sunleng told the two men in court yesterday.
Judge Sunleng said by telephone yesterday evening that according to court procedure, the Appeal Court had to hold the hearing before carrying through with the Supreme Court’s order. The hearing had been delayed once in April at the request of the victim’s family.
The judge said that the court has not decided whether the Phnom Penh Municipal Court or the Appeal Court will reinvestigate the case.
Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight in January 2004 at a newsstand in Phnom Penh by two men who fled the scene on a motorcycle. Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun were arrested shortly afterward. Numerous rights groups and even Chea Vichea’s family have campaigned to have the pair cleared of all charges, claiming that they are obvious scapegoats.
Sok Sam Oeun, the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, who is not related to the accused of the same name, said he was surprised by yesterday’s ruling, as he had expected the Appeal Court to either acquit or uphold the conviction following the hearing. Lawyers from CDP are representing both men.
“This morning I think the court wanted to show that they want to act properly. Maybe,” Mr Sam Oeun said.
The ultimate result of the investigation could be a new trial, not another hearing like today, he said, adding that the next step will likely be the appointment of an Appeal Court investigating judge.
The attorney added that defense lawyers had requested the opportunity to question Heng Pov, the disgraced former chief of police of Phnom Penh, at yesterday’s hearing. However, the court did not respond to the request for Mr Pov to testify, Mr Sam Oeun said.
Now serving more than 93 years in prison for various crimes, Heng Pov headed the police investigation into the Chea Vichea murder. In an Aug 2006 article in France’s largest-circulation weekly magazine, L’Express, Heng Pov claimed that the two defendants in the Chea Vichea case were framed, and that he was told to do it.
The two accused men expressed gratitude yesterday for the court’s decision.
Mr Sam Oeun said in court that he was glad to continue to be free on bail, and Mr Samnang publicly thanked a number of Cambodian leaders for the decision.
Mr Vichea’s brother, current FTU President Chea Mony, told the court he suspected government officials orchestrated the killing.
“Please, the court has to find and arrest the real killers to find justice for my brother,” he said.
Pung Chiv Kek, president of local rights group Licadho, said she was disappointed by yesterday’s ruling.
“Everybody now knows that the two are innocent, so we expected so much that the court would drop the charges and make a decision and declare they are not guilty and set them free,” she said.