Freed But Not Cleared, Thach Saveth Starts Anew

Waking up now inside his mother’s wooden house in Phnom Penh, Thach Saveth said yesterday that he still needed a few moments in the mornings to come to terms with his new surroundings.

“Am I still in jail?” he said he wonders to himself.

Emerging after nearly seven years in prison, Mr Saveth was released Friday evening after the Supreme Court found that the evidence supporting his 2005 murder conviction was insufficient. His re­lease drew praise from human rights groups who maintained, as the 28-year-old had always said himself, that he never gunned down Free Trade Union leader Ros Sovannareth.

“I don’t even know what he looked like,” he said of his alleged victim.

Now living with family in Dang­kao district’s Kambol commune, Mr Saveth’s new life is a far cry from his previous one. His head is freshly shorn after a Buddhist cleansing ceremony immediately after his release. He discarded his old prison garb at the pagoda. Gone are the cramped quarters shared with dozens of other in­mates and the two meager daily meals that left him weak and sick. Gone too is his bleak outlook on life.

“I didn’t hope or expect anything. I was thinking in the opposite way,” he said of his legal battle that began with his arrest in 2004. “It seems now like the Supreme Court has learned I had nothing to do with this case.”

The court on Wednesday ordered Mr Saveth released on bail, though the processing of paperwork delayed this until Friday night. Although he was not acquitted of murdering Ros Sovannareth, Mr Saveth and his family are hopeful a second investigation will exonerate him.

“I don’t think he’ll go back to the prison, and I won’t let him back,” his mother, Huon Phalla, said yesterday. “I was thinking about him every night. When I saw him [walking out of Prey Sar Prison], I couldn’t speak. I just burst into tears.”

Supreme Court prosecutor Yos Sokhoeun said the court was still preparing Mr Saveth’s documents for referral to the Court of Appeal.

“It will include a reinvestigation. They have to find sufficient evidence to convict” the accused, he said.

Mr Saveth’s trials and appeals bore remarkable similarities to those of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men released on bail in 2008 after spending almost five years in prison for the murder of Free Trade Union President Chea Vichea. The Supreme Court also ordered their case reinvestigated.

On July 24, 2004, Mr Saveth was playing cards with three other men on a street corner in Tuol Kok district. Betting a few thousand riel on the games, Mr Saveth said he did not notice the plainclothes officer behind him until the man tapped his shoulder and told him to stand up.

There, the officer locked Mr Saveth’s arms behind him and sat him down on a motorbike. Police took him to district headquarters and interrogated him over his drug use. Mr Saveth admitted to occasionally melting down amphetamine pills to inhale their fumes. However, yesterday he said he did not have any narcotics with him on the day of his arrest and that he had been seven months sober.

He said an officer pushed his head onto the table and told him to thumbprint a police report. Mr Saveth, who was not given a chance to read it, did so. It was not until his trial at Phnom Penh Municipal Court did he learn he was charged with murder.

District police chief Huot Chan Yaran declined to respond to Mr Saveth’s assertions yesterday before hanging up on a reporter.

“The case is at the court. You should ask the court. I’m not in charge of that anymore,” he said.

The court sentenced Mr Saveth to 15 years in prison based on eyewitness statements that were prepared by police in the face of Mr Saveth’s insistence he was traveling at the time of the killing and had no credible motive for the crime. His guilty verdict tormented him.

“When I was in jail, I tried not to think about it, but I couldn’t help it,” he said.

Despite his years in prison and the hardscrabble days ahead, Mr Saveth said his release had offered him a bit of optimism, for once. His mother hopes to enroll him in a course teaching him to become an auto mechanic. Although he called his childhood dream of becoming a doctor “impossible” now, he said at least now he would be able to write his own future.

“I think I still have hope for my case and that I will be exonerated,” he said. “I still hope for that.”

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