The Appeals Court on Thursday upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s guilty verdict for two men serving 20-year sentences for the murder of union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.
The verdict, which was issued without Born Samnang, Sok Sam Oeun or their lawyers present in the courtroom, was followed by a barrage of statements by local and international rights groups blasting the court for failing to release the two men, whom many believe are innocent.
Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union, was gunned down in broad daylight on Jan 22, 2004 at a newsstand outside Wat Langka in Chamkar Mon district. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested a week later and found guilty of the killing on Aug 1, 2005.
At the Appeals Court on Thursday, Judge Saly Theara dismissed defense witness testimony from the April 6 hearing.
“The Appeal Court doesn’t believe the [witnesses] at all,” he said.
Vieng Thi Hong, who claims to be Born Samnang’s wife, testified at the hearing that she and her husband left Phnom Penh to get married in Prey Veng province on the morning Chea Vichea was killed.
Saly Theara said that on the day Chea Vichea was killed, no one would get married as it was the Chinese New Year.
“They didn’t have any photos as proof [of the wedding],” Saly Theara said. “So the presence of Born Samnang in [Prey Veng] was unclear.”
Var Sothy, the owner of the newsstand where Chea Vichea was killed and an eyewitness to the slaying, issued a signed statement in August from Bangkok saying that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not the killers.
Var Sothy wrote that she did not attend the trial of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun in August 2005 because she was ordered by then-Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov to remain silent and feared for her life.
“I will be killed if I continue to live in Cambodia and I will never have an opportunity to tell the truth to the nation and international community about the murder,” she wrote in the statement.
Var Sothy also recalled in her statement a chilling visit from a man she believed to be the actual killer of Chea Vichea to her newsstand a month after the arrests of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun.
Var Sothy fled Cambodia after the killing and wrote her statement while seeking asylum in a third country through the UN. Heng Pov, who headed the investigation into Chea Vichea’s murder, is now in prison for killing a judge.
Saly Theara rejected Var Sothy’s statement while reading the verdict, saying that she was not present at the court, so it would go against court procedures to accept her account of events.
He added that a gun confiscated from Born Samnang matched bullet shells found at the scene of Chea Vichea’s killing.
Hong Kimsuon, lawyer for Born Samnang, said in an interview Thursday that his client has alleged that police planted the gun in order to get a conviction. Hong Kimsuon also asked why the gun was mentioned in the verdict though it had not been discussed at the appeal hearing.
He added that he would appeal the Appeals Court ruling to the Supreme Court.
Theo Kidess, deputy head of mission at the German Embassy, said by telephone that he was disappointed by the decision.
“We share the view of the majority of people that the conviction of the two [men] was so flawed that there is no reason to keep them in prison,” Kidess said Thursday.
“It’s disappointing that the judge did not follow the prosecutor’s suggestion to reinvestigate [the] case,” he added, referring to Prosecutor Pann Kim Lean’s appeal hearing request April 6 that Chea Vichea’s murder be re-investigated “in order to find the real killers.”
Yash Ghai, UN special representative for human rights in Cambodia, issued a statement saying that there was no credible evidence linking the pair to the murder of Chea Vichea.
“The upholding of the conviction against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun…is a grave injustice and underlines already existing concerns about judicial independence, the rule of law and continuing impunity in Cambodia,” he wrote.
Brittis Edman, a researcher for Amnesty International, wrote that the verdict was a “blatant result of political interference in the judicial process.”
“It is truly disconcerting that the murderers of Chea Vichea remain at large and that the Cambodian judiciary, yet again, has failed to deliver justice,” she wrote.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee also called the case politically motivated and called for police to re-open their investigation.
Judge Samreth Sophal, one of the three Appeals Court judges who presided over the case, said by telephone that the verdict was not politically motivated.
“[The verdict] was based on the evidence and the witnesses,” he said, adding that the judges considered Pann Kim Lean’s recommendation to re-open the investigation but decided against it.
Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun, who is no relation to the suspect of the same name, said that the decision to ignore the prosecutor’s call to reinvestigate the killing showed that the trial is unfair.
“When in doubt, the court should favor the accused,” he said, adding that the court was emphasizing procedure over finding justice.
Born Samnang’s mother, Nuon Kimsry, 46, told reporters outside the court that the verdict was unjust.
“My son is innocent no matter how many hearings there are,” she said.
Sok Sam Oeun’s father, Vuon Phon, 63, said that he was worried for his son’s wellbeing in prison.
“Please Prime Minister Hun Sen, help forgive my son,” he said. “My son is suffering.”
Chea Vichea’s brother, Free Trade Union president Chea Mony, said by telephone Thursday that the court has convicted the wrong men.
“They made their decisions by following the direction of powerful people,” he said.