Eight Years On, Assassination of Union Leader Remains Unsolved

After years of repeated court delays, charges of political interference and investigative incompetence, the country is still no closer to knowing who carried out its most prominent assassination—the slaying of union leader Chea Vichea, who died eight years ago on Sunday.

By all accounts, the investigation into the killing of the Free Trade Union (FTU) President is now officially stalled, with police saying they are awaiting another court order to continue their investigation, while the court claims it has no knowledge of the long-unsolved murder case.

To many, any hope of finding those responsible for the assassination of Chea Vichea was dead in the water from the very beginning.

Outspoken, charismatic and the bane of the government and garment factory bosses, Chea Vichea was reading The Cambodia Daily at a newsstand near Phnom Penh’s Wat Lanka when he was gunned down at point blank range.

In broad daylight, the gunman coolly dismounted from the back of a Honda motorcycle and walked to the news stall. He wore no helmet to disguise his identity. Biding his time, the killer pretended to peruse newspapers before smoothly removing a pistol from the waistband of his trousers. He fired three times at a measured speed into Chea Vichea, who was sitting on a low stool, hitting him first in the head, then the chest and left arm. Just as coolly as he had arrived, the gunman walked back to the waiting motorcycle and slowly rode off with his accomplice.

All the details of the killing were recounted to the Cambodia Daily by the owner of the newsstand who was an eyewitness, and who was given political asylum overseas some months after when the same killer of Chea Vichea paid her a return visit, and explained plainly to her what would be the consequences if she continued to speak about what she had seen.

Police and reporters arrived on the scene within minutes, bringing with them an understanding of what Chea Vichea’s death represented.

This was the man whose rallying speeches had united tens of thousands of poorly paid factory workers and brought about the first ever minimum wage for workers in Cambodia’s then-rapidly expanding garment sector. For years he had defied the government – he was well known for his close relationship with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party – and he had ignored threats against his life along the way. He was a regular visitor to The Cambodia Daily newsroom, usually to bring along evidence of the latest threats to his life – the last of which was sent to him by telephone text message.

Chea Vichea’s cold-blooded killing made international news. It drew an immediate condemnation from the US Embassy, which called him a “champion of labor rights.” Messages denouncing the killing cascaded in from around the world. Then-King Norodom Sihanouk called the killing “undeniably political.” The King gave voice to a motive that most have not abandoned to this day.

With more than 15,000 mourners attending Chea Vichea’s funeral on Jan. 25, 2004 the pressure on the government to act was intense.

In the days following, then-Phnom Penh Deputy Police Chief Heng Pov-who is now serving nearly 100 years in prison for crimes, including the assassination of a judge- released a pencil-line sketch of a man, saying that police believed him to be the killer. Heng Pov predicted that the case, which he insisted was not political, would be solved within a week.

As he presciently predicted, on Jan. 29, Heng Pov paraded two weeping men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, in front of reporters as those responsible for the killing. The arrests were quickly discredited and the two suspects were labeled as scapegoats.

Born Samnang recanted a confession to the crime claiming that police had beaten it out of him and Var Sothy, the most intimate witness to the murder as she was the owner of the newsstand where Chea Vichea was gunned down, said that the pair were simply not the killers that she had seen that day.

Though the credibility of the police investigation lay in tatters, the prosecution of the two men marched determinedly forward. But, in a spectacular turn of events, on March 19 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s Investigating, Judge Hing Thirith, dismissed the case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, saying that there was simply not enough evidence to prosecute them. Judge Thirith was removed from his position five days later by government order. On June 1, the Appeal Court overturned Judge Thirith’s considered decision, ordering instead that the pair be formally charged with Chea Vichea’s murder.

With the cogs of the court apparatus now working in sync, the pair was found guilty of Chea Vichea’s murder in August 2005, and sentenced to 20 years in prison each.

In a memorably Kafkaesque moment, the trial’s presiding Judge Kong Set said that his guilty verdict was based on witness testimony, though no witnesses ever appeared in court, while the testimony of the owner of the newspaper stand, Ms. Sothy, was ruled inadmissible. (Ms. Sothy has fled Cambodia for her own safety after being visited by the actual killers, but the court said her presence in court was necessary if she wanted to be included as a witness for the defense).

The jailing of the two men kicked of years of campaigning by human rights groups and international bodies to have the pair released, and demands for the government to conduct a serious investigation of the slaying.

In the broiling sea of political infighting, violence, and intrigue in Cambodia at that time, Heng Pov took a stunning dive from grace among his compatriots in the security arm of the ruling party. Though he had been promoted to secretary of state at the Interior Ministry and was even named as a personal security advisor to Mr. Hun Sen, Heng Pov fled Cambodia and sought political asylum in several countries claiming that he knew many dirty secrets of the government, including the framing of the suspects in the Chea Vichea case.

Hiding out between Singapore and Malaysia while hoping for asylum in the U.S. or other Western countries, Heng Pov gave an interview that was published on Aug 17, 2006, in France’s weekly newsmagazine L’Express. In that interview, Heng Pov said that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun did not kill Chea Vichea and claimed that he was pressured by the late-National Police chief Hok Lundy into framing the pair.

“It did not take me long to understand that the two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder,” Heng Pov told L’Express.

He said that Hok Lundy, who died in a helicopter crash in November, 2008, had presented him personally with a handgun, claiming that it was the actual weapon that was used to murder Chea Vichea.

“Hok Lundy called me, demanding that I go to his home to pick up a gun which he affirmed to be the crime weapon,” Heng Pov told L’Express, adding that he believed that the gun was the same weapon used in the 2003 murder of Funcinpec parliamentarian Om Radsady, who was gunned down by two men who escaped on motorcycle.

Police denied the accusations of official involvement in a cover up of the Chea Vichea killing saying that Heng Pov’s claims were nothing more than the stories of criminal on the run. By this stage, Cambodian police had charged, in absentia, Heng Pov with a raft of serious crimes, which they claimed he had conducted with the help of a group of other, similarly corrupt, police officers.

Heng Pov was denied asylum in the U.S., Singapore and Malaysia. With nowhere to go, Malaysia police handed him over to their Cambodian colleagues and he was finally flown back from Kuala Lumpur under guard by trusted loyalists of the late General Hok. Heng Pov is currently serving 98 years in prison for a litany of crimes, including kidnapping and murder.

After numerous delays, the Court of Appeal on April 13, 2007, pressed on with the prosecution, upholding the guilty verdict against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, and in the process dismissing testimony by multiple witnesses who stated that they saw Born Samnang at a wedding in Prey Veng province at the time that Chea Vichea was gunned down in Phnom Penh.

It wasn’t until Dec 31, 2008, after the pair had served nearly five years in prison, and amid a juggernaut of international pressure, the Supreme Court granted bail to Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun and ordered the Court of Appeal to reinvestigate the case. The appeal court in April 2009 then ordered the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to reinvestigate the murder of Chea Vichea, but to this day there appears that no further action has been taken to get to the bottom of his killing.

Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said on Thursday that police have no orders from the court to reopen the Chea Vichea case. “So far we don’t receive any instruction from the court,” he said.

Nget Sarath, the Court of Appeal’s prosecutor, said he was “not in charge of this case,” while the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s Deputy Prosecutor Sok Roeun declined to comment.

In a full-page newspaper ad to mark the 8th anniversary of the unsolved assassination, the Chea Vichea Fund for Worker’s Rights said that the Cambodian public may not know “officially” who killed Chea Vichea, but they have “a very clear idea who gave the order.”

The ad continued: “The real killers will be found the day Cambodia is governed with rule of law.”

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