The Appeals Court ruled Thursday that the case against two men accused of killing union leader Chea Vichea be returned to Phnom Penh Municipal Court for further investigation “in order to find more clear evidence to prove the suspects guilty,” the presiding judge said.
Judge Thuong Mony overturned Municipal Court Judge Hing Thirith’s March 19 decision to drop the charges against the two suspects because of a lack of evidence, and ruled the two defendants be returned to jail.
No new evidence was presented against Sok Sam Oeun, 36, and Born Samnang, 23, but witnesses provided alibis for Born Samnang, and he gave strong testimony against police.
Born Samnang said that Tuol Kok District Police beat him and forced him to thumbprint a confession that he was not allowed to read.
“I was threatened. They beat me when I was handcuffed. The first day I denied that I was the killer, but the next day I confessed to it,” Born Samnang said.
Thuong Mony was unmoved. “Your confession supports the evidence of the case,” he replied.
The case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun has been rife with irregularities and inconsistencies and roundly criticized by international and local human rights groups.
Police arrested Born Samnang on Jan 27 at his girlfriend’s house in Prey Veng province near the Neak Leoung ferry crossing. He said Thursday he had been gathering fruit at the time Chea Vichea was gunned down in Phnom Penh on Jan 22.
“I went to Neak Leoung on Jan 21. I left at 11 am and arrived around 1:30 pm,” he said.
Numerous villagers in Neak Leoung have corroborated that story.
Born Samnang said he was arrested without warrant or explanation and delivered with his girlfriend to Tuol Kok District Police headquarters.
He said his interrogation began there at 7 am.
“I protested, ‘Why do you want me to thumbprint that document? Why don’t you read it to me?’ Police refused to read it to me and one of them kicked me severely in the head,” Born Samnang told the court.
He also told the court that once he had confessed and settled into PJ prison, police provided him with money, cigarettes and the company of women.
Producing a $100 note from the pocket of his blue prison uniform, Born Samnang said “Yesterday, [Tuol Kok Deputy District Police Chief] Hun Song came again and told me, ‘You have to answer as before. Then, when you leave the court, you will receive more money.’ I spent some of the money.”
Hun Song denied the allegation by telephone later Thursday.
“I did not pay anything. I just got the voluntary confession from him,” Hun Song said.
The reason for the Tuol Kok District Police Department’s involvement in the case is unclear, as the slaying occurred at a newsstand near the Independence Monument in Chamkar Mon district.
No police were at the court on Thursday for cross-examination.
The second defendant Sok Sam Oeun also maintained his unwavering plea of innocence.
When Phnom Penh Municipal Police proudly presented their two suspects, hooded and handcuffed, to reporters on Jan 29, they said that a confession by Born Samnang had led to the capture of Sok Sam Oeun.
Both men made emotional pleas of innocence. But the next day, Born Samnang claimed to have killed Chea Vichea.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 17 local NGOs, issued a statement Thursday, supporting Thuong Mony’s call for further investigation but attacking his decision to return the defendants to prison.
“CHRAC would like to appeal to the government to guarantee the safety of the two suspects, who are being detained in the prison, and particularly to not allow any police official involved in the case to meet the suspects without permission from the prosecutor,” the statement said.
CHRAC also lamented the Appeals Court’s lack of independence and inability to handle a politically charged case.
Sara Colm of New York-based Human Rights Watch also expressed concern for the defendants’ well-being, especially that of Born Samnang because of his blistering testimony.
Colm also criticized the court proceedings, describing them as flimsy. “Returning two men to prison when no new evidence has been presented indicates an unwillingness on the part of the authorities to find the real killers of Chea Vichea,” she said.
Srey Watha, director of PJ prison, said Thursday that no harm would come to either defendant while they are in his charge.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)