The man who was convicted in absentia and arrested earlier this year for the murder of a garment factory union leader in 2007 appeared in court for the first time Tuesday to protest his innocence.
Chan Sophon, 35, along with Long Vannak, 35, was at large when he was sentenced in March 2012 to 18 years in prison for killing Hy Vuthy, a Free Trade Union (FTU) leader at Phnom Penh’s Suntex factory who was shot to death in February 2007.
Police arrested Mr. Sophon after he was identified while on a trip to Phnom Penh to visit his mother in February. Mr. Vannak remains at large.
Mr. Sophon’s appearance at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday, following a complaint that he filed with the court over its guilty verdict against him, was the first time that he has personally been able to protest his innocence.
“We want you to clarify this case because the witnesses told the court that you were involved in the murder,” presiding Judge Suos Sam Ath told Mr. Sophon.
Mr. Sophon said that he knew Hy Vuthy, a prominent labor activist at the Suntex factory, where Mr. Sophon was also employed, but denied that he played any part in his murder.
“I did not shoot Hy Vuthy dead, and I do not know who killed him,” Mr. Sophon told the court.
“I only knew he was killed when police arrested me,” he added.
Judge Sam Ath read out witness statements saying that Mr. Sophon and Hy Vuthy had a verbal altercation shortly before the murder, as well as a statement from a witness who claimed to have seen Mr. Sophon with a K-59 handgun, the weapon used to kill Hy Vuthy, on the morning of the murder.
Judge Sam Ath said that he would summons witnesses and police who were involved in the initial investigation and trial for further questioning in the case.
Hy Vuthy’s murder, committed early in the morning by two men on a motorcycle as Hy Vuthy was driving home after working a night shift, occurred within four years of the murder of FTU president Chea Vichea in January 2004 and FTU activist Ros Sovannareth months later.
The killings were widely believed to be politically motivated.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2005 for killing Chea Vichea, were released by the Supreme Court in September.
Thach Saveth, the man arrested for the killing of Ros Sovannareth, was released on bail by the Supreme Court in March 2011 pending a reinvestigation of the case.
Chea Mony, who replaced his brother as president of the FTU, said Tuesday that he does not believe that Mr. Sophon killed Hy Vuthy, and doubted that the government would make a concerted effort to find the person who did.
“I did not believe the court and I do not believe that Mr. Sophon is the real killer. I know that the government did not arrest the real killer, as with my brother’s case,” Mr. Mony said.