The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday acquitted Chan Sophon of the 2007 murder of union leader Hy Vuthy, overturning a 2012 conviction and an 18-year jail sentence that rights groups and Mr. Vuthy’s own union believe was cover for the real perpetrators.
Hy Vuthy was a senior leader of the opposition-aligned Free Trade Union (FTU) and was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while heading home from a Phnom Penh garment factory at the end of a night shift in February 2007.
Mr. Sophon has always professed his innocence, insisting that he was on a family farm in Kompong Speu province at the time of the union leader’s murder.
“The court acquits Mr. Chan Sophon of the charge of intentional murder,” Judge Kor Vandy told the court.
The judge offered no explanation of the decision to overturn the conviction or when Mr. Sophon would be released and declined to comment afterward.
After the brief court session, Mr. Sophon again professed his innocence.
“I did not kill Hy Vuthy and I ask the court to release me so I can look after my children,” he said as he was put into a van for the drive back to Prey Sar prison.
His lawyer, Chea Hongry, welcomed the verdict.
“The court releases Mr. Sophon because he was not involved in this case; it is justice for my client,” he said. “The court made the right decision and Mr. Sophon should be released.”
He said it could take another one to two weeks of paperwork to secure his release, however.
Contacted afterward, FTU President Chea Mony said he did not believe Mr. Sophon was the murderer and welcomed the day’s verdict but at the same time faulted the court for not pursuing any other suspects in the original case.
“I did not believe Chan Sophon was the killer, because other suspects were never arrested and sent to court. Why only him?” he said. “I welcome Mr. Sophon’s release, but the court should arrest other suspects.”
Hy Vuthy’s 2007 slaying followed the same pattern as the murder of two other FTU leaders, including Mr. Mony’s brother, Chea Vichea, in 2004.
As in Mr. Sophon’s case, the men convicted for those murders were widely considered to be scapegoats and eventually released for lack of evidence.