Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the men wrongfully sentenced to 20 years in prison for the 2004 murder of Free Trade Union (FTU) leader Chea Vichea, were exonerated Wednesday by the Supreme Court of the crime.
Responding to the acquittal, Chea Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony, said the government was responsible for having orchestrated the killing of his sibling and the ensuing cover up.
Wednesday’s appearance at the Supreme Court was the men’s final bid for freedom after spending a total of five years in jail.
The Supreme Court already threw their case back to the lower Appeal Court in 2008 for reinvestigation due to a serious lack of evidence. But the Court of Appeal chose to resentence the men in December 2012 for the killing.
Acquitting Mr. Sam Oeun and Mr. Samnang means that the real killers of Chea Vichea—shot dead in broad daylight as he read a copy of The Cambodia Daily outside Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh on January 22, 2004—remain at large almost a decade after the slaying.
“The Supreme Court acquits the charges on Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” Presiding Judge Khim Pon announced following an hour’s deliberation after an emotional three-hour hearing.
“Please release Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, if both persons are not being detained for any other crime. The Supreme Court rejects the Appeal Court’s verdict on December 27, 2012,” the judge said.
Judge Pon, however, shot down hopes that the men would qualify for any compensation for their years of incarceration, citing Article 23 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and claiming that it could not be proven that the men had suffered any injury because of their wrongful, five-year detention.
After the verdict was read out, cheers and applause erupted in the courtroom and Mr. Samnang, 33, and Mr. Sam Oeun, 45, threw themselves to the floor and prostrated in front of the nine-judge panel.
“I am very happy and I thank the court for releasing me,” said a relieved and jubilant Mr. Samnang. “I thank Samdech Yeay, the King, Samdech Chea Sim, Samdech Hun Sen and Samdech Heng Samrin,” he said of the highest-ranking members of the CPP, which critics have long said hold much sway over the functioning of the country’s courts.
Mr. Samnang’s mother, 52-year-old Nuon Kimsry, and lawyer, Chum Sovannaly, said the men had finally been given justice.
“I think the government is responsible for paying them damages, because they were imprisoned,” Mr. Sovannaly said—though Judge Pon made it clear in his verdict that no reparations would be made available to the men, who spent a cumulative five years in prison each for a crime they never committed.
“I thank the Supreme Court for releasing me…so I will tell the world that Cambodia has justice again,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
His wife, carrying their 3-year-old daughter, also spoke of her relief and said the court had finally delivered justice for her long-suffering husband.
Mr. Sam Oeun’s lawyer, Hong Kimsuon, said the court had been justified in reversing the lower court’s decision.
“The announcement today shows that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not guilty of the premeditated murder of Chea Vichea,” Mr. Kimsuon said, adding that the lower courts had erred in sentencing the men in the first place.
Chea Vichea’s brother Chea Mony, who was elected FTU leader after his brother’s assassination, has always maintained that the two men had been made scapegoats for the murder, saying the decision to free the men means that fresh questions must be asked as to why the real killers have never been arrested, tried or sentenced.
“Ten years ago, the court could not find the real murderers; this is a weakness of the government and the court,” he said.
“I never thought that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were the murderers. This time, the government lost the case, because it is unable to find the real culprits, but the government is behind my brother Chea Vichea’s killing,” he said.
In court, Judge Pon confirmed what many had often said: That the case against the men had been built upon shaky, unsubstantial evidence, flawed witness statements and a failure to take the men’s alibis into account.
“There are witnesses who clarified that when Chea Vichea was killed, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not at the scene, so they are not the murderers,” he said, adding that one witness gave conflicting reports as to what kind of motorbike was driven by the killers.
Witness Heang Meng Houth also testified during the men’s trial that he was with Sok Sam Oeun in another part of the city when the murder took place. Born Samnang, meanwhile, took a taxi out of Phnom Penh the day before the killing, witness Ros Rorn had said.
Mr. Sam Oeun has maintained his innocence from the start. Mr. Samnang initially confessed, but told the Supreme Court in 2008 that the confession had been false, extracted only because he was being beaten by the police who were holding him in custody.
Human rights groups welcomed the decision, but insisted that a thorough investigation needs to be carried out to bring the real killers to justice.
In a joint statement, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Labor Organization said that while they “welcome the acquittal and imminent release of the two men, they recall the emphasis placed by international supervisory bodies on the needs for a full investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea in order to ensure that the real perpetrators are prosecuted, tried and punished.”
Local rights group Licadho issued a statement co-signed by nine other NGOs saying that the acquittal was “long overdue,” and that reparations must be paid.
“Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were deprived of their freedom and separated from their families for years, and have had this wrongful conviction over their heads since 2005,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said. “The two should be allowed to obtain reparations for this gross injustice.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said the opening of a fresh investigation into the killing of Chea Vichea would help “combat rampant impunity in the Kingdom.”
Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun were arrested days after the killing and the case sent to trial, but it was dismissed on March 19, 2004, by then-Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Hing Thirith, who cited a lack of evidence. “Days later, he was removed from his post and banished to Stung Treng Provincial Court,” Mr. Tola said of the treatment Judge Thirith received at the time.
The case continued to take bizarre turns when Appeal Court Judge Thou Mony overturned Judge Thirith’s decision on June 1, 2004, and ordered that the murder charges be reinstated against the men though no new evidence had been presented.
Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun were convicted of Chea Vichea’s murder by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2005 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In addition to highly suspect evidence, the case against the pair was choreographed by then-Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov, who would go on to become Prime Minister Hun Sen’s security adviser and an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry. However, Heng Pov is now serving a 100-year prison sentence for a litany of crimes, including the murder of a municipal court judge.
While Heng Pov was on the run from the law and hiding out in Singapore he gave an interview with French magazine L’Express in August 2006 that spectacularly claimed the entire case against Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun was fabricated by then-National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy —and that he had ordered the arrests of the men in order to appease an increasingly under-pressure government.
“It did not take long for me to understand that the two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder,” Heng Pov was quoted as saying by L’Express.
Hok Lundy, one of Mr. Hun Sen’s closest allies, died in a helicopter crash in 2008.
Amid intense international scrutiny of the men’s case, the Supreme Court in 2008 upheld the men’s guilty verdict, but ordered them released on bail while the Appeal Court reinvestigated the case.
Heng Pov, who is jailed in Prey Sar prison, refused to testify at the men’s retrial last year, claiming his conversion to Christianity as the reason for his silence.
That retrial was similarly branded a sham by human rights groups —practically no new evidence was presented—and the pair were resentenced in a decision that capped off a devastating year for human rights in the country.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)