By Lee BerthiaumeJust before he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for killing prominent union leader Chea Vichea, Sok Sam Oeun stood and proclaimed Monday’s trial a “show.”
“The case is laughable,” the 37-year-old told the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, turning at one point to address the crowded room behind him.
“I can swear 1,000 times” but it won’t matter, he said. “Everybody in Cambodia will be killed if it keeps going like this.”
Like many in the courtroom, Sok Sam Oeun believed his guilt had already been decided prior to Monday’s trial.
Human rights groups condemned the trial Monday and Tuesday, saying it was subject to political influence and was unjust. Observers have long said the men may simply be scapegoats.
“We regard the verdict…as a highly unjust verdict in which the court was politically biased rather than using its independency to give an accurate and reasonable judgement,” the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, composed of 18 local human rights groups, said in a statement Tuesday.
The statement went on to say the court did not seriously consider the many documents put to it, testimony from defense witnesses or from the accused themselves.
The US Embassy also responded to the verdict.
“We have closely followed the hearing and trial that resulted in the convictions of Mr Sok Sam Oeun and Mr Born Samnang in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Aug 1,” an Embassy spokesman said Tuesday. “We have serious concerns with the weakness of the evidence presented.”
Based on the French civil system, the investigating and presiding judges have full control over trials, which are often decided beforehand, Center for Social Development court monitor Lao Mong Hay said.
“These hearings are symbolic,” he said. “The decision has already been made.”
That is because the investigating judge in all cases is responsible for compiling evidence to be used during the trial and until the day of the trial, which is all the information the presiding judge has about the case.
The information passed on is taken as fact, he said, as it is supposed to have taken into account all sides and put them down on paper in a fair manner to ultimately be weighed by the presiding judge.
While that may work in a system where the judiciary is independent, Lao Mong Hay said the reality in Cambodia is that the judiciary is not independent.
“We have to look at the political context, especially the relationship between the police and courts,” he said, noting that the investigating judge in Cambodia, as opposed to one in France, usually bases his case solely upon police reports.
He noted that from the moment Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were paraded in front of reporters by police on Jan 30, police have maintained the two were guilty.
“The presumption of guilt started from there,” Lao Mong Hay said. “The investigating judge should have conducted a thorough investigation.”
In March 2004, Judge Hing Thirith, the original investigating judge on the case, said there wasn’t enough evidence to try the two men.
He was transferred to Stung Treng province later that month and further investigation was ordered following an Appeals Court hearing in June 2004.
Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun said an additional problem is that Cambodian law does not have any rules on evidence. (Sok Sam Oeun is not related to the man convicted of killing Chea Vichea.)
“All documents taken from penal police and investigating judge are considered evidence,” said Sok Sam Oeun, who may represent the two men when their case goes to the Appeals Court. “They are taken as proof until [defendants] present contradictory evidence.”
This flaw, he said, was magnified by the fact that the witnesses, whose statements to police formed the basis of the evidence used to convict the two men, never appeared in court.
They could not be questioned by defense lawyers hoping to contradict their testimony, but their failure to appear does not invalidate their testimony, as it would in other countries.
One Cambodian prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said this was a flaw, and added that judges should accept police information as a tip and not fact, especially if there is contradictory evidence.
“The trial judge must consider only on the evidence compiled by the investigating judge, not police,” he said.
During the trial, numerous defense witnesses said Born Samnang was not in Phnom Penh the day Chea Vichea was killed but was in Prey Veng province. However, the unknown witnesses allegedly told police they saw him in the capital that morning.
Born Samnang also, at one point during the trial, pleaded with Presiding Judge Kong Set to have Tuol Kok district police Deputy Chief Heng Vathana take an oath promising to tell the truth.
No oaths were taken during the trial.
Sok Sam Oeun of the CDP said government officials, including police, take oaths when they start their jobs and are presumed to already be under oath. However, having all witnesses take oaths is essential as Buddhist tradition frowns on lying, he said.
Lao Mong Hay said he doubts an oath would have much effect.
“In our culture, it doesn’t matter at all.” But Monday’s case highlights the need for judicial reform in Cambodia, he said.