Two men charged with killing prominent union leader Chea Vichea were found guilty in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday and sentenced to 20 years in jail each, causing an uproar in the courtroom.
Presiding Judge Kong Set said that based upon statements made to police by numerous witnesses none of whom appeared in court for questioning he had no doubt Sok Sam Oeun, 37, and Born Samnang, 24, had killed Chea Vichea.
“Seeing that the suspects really committed the crime,” Kong Set told the court, “the court decides to jail Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for 20 years each counting from the day of arrest.”
The two men were arrested on Jan 29, 2004.
When Kong Set announced the jail sentence, the men’s families started crying loudly, and the two men began screaming that they were innocent.
Unperturbed, Kong Set finished reading the verdict, which included an order for each man to pay about $5,000 compensation to Chea Vichea’s family, and quickly left the courtroom as police grabbed the two men and led them to a police van waiting outside.
Sok Sam Oeun, who had asked Kong Set not to “worry about your removal because you are independent” before the verdict was read, fought police as he cried and continued screaming and pleading to retired King Norodom Sihanouk for help.
The two were dragged out of the courtroom and manhandled into a van before being taken back to PJ Prison where they have been detained since they were arrested.
The men’s families continued to cry and scream, predicting both men would be killed in prison in the near future to complete what they allege is a cover-up of the union leader’s assassination.
“It is a big injustice to put my son in prison for 20 years,” Born Samnang’s mother, Nun Kimsrei, screamed. “Please, King father, help my son. If he commits a crime, please put him and myself in prison. But he is innocent. He did nothing wrong.”
The trial began with Kong Set questioning Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun about their whereabouts on Jan 22, 2004.
Born Samnang maintained he was staying at his girlfriend’s home in Prey Veng province celebrating the Chinese New Year the morning Chea Vichea was killed. He said police broke into his girlfriend’s home around 1 am and arrested him without explanation.
He said he’d been staying at a guesthouse in Phnom Penh the previous night because his mother had denounced him for stealing money from the company where he’d been employed and that’s why he went to see his girlfriend.
Born Samnang’s girlfriend, her mother, brother and other relatives testified Tuesday in support of his alibi.
Sok Sam Oeun also said he was celebrating Chinese New Year that day, drinking at a friend’s house the morning of the murder. He said after he was arrested, police hit his head with a gun to try to get him to confess.
Both men said they had never met before and their lawyers said they could provide more witnesses to verify their alibis.
But Kong Set, who asked all the questions for the State as prosecutor Sok Roeun looked on, pointed to a confession from Born Samnang.
The day after they were arrested, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun pleaded their innocence. But the next day Born Samnang changed his story and confessed that he and Sok Sam Oeun were promised $5,000 by an unknown person to kill Chea Vichea.
On Tuesday, Born Samnang said he had confessed after being beaten and threatened by police. He also accused police of trying to bribe him with money, women and gifts in prison to get him to change his story.
Tuol Kok district police Chief Heng Vathana denied the accusation, even after Born Samnang interrupted him to demand that he swear he was telling the truth. None of the witnesses took an oath.
“Police were not stupid enough to go into the prison and offer money,” Heng Vathana said. “After he was arrested and put in prison, we had no reason to get more involved. I would like to deny all allegations.”
Heng Vathana said Sok Sam Oeun’s arrest was based solely upon Born Samnang’s confession.
Chea Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony, also called on the court to release the two men and find the real killers.
Noticeably absent from the trial were the witnesses upon whose statements Kong Set based his verdict.
“The witnesses should be at the court, not just their statements,” said lawyer Khov Chantha, who was representing Sok Sam Oeun. “We have more questions that cannot be answered.”
The owner of the newsstand where Chea Vichea was killed also did not appear.
“The main witness, the one who saw the shooting, was too scared to show up,” said lawyer Poeung Yuk Hiep, who was representing Chea Vichea’s family, adding that police reports do not constitute hard evidence.
Following the verdict, Chea Mony said he would not accept any money from Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun.
“This is an injustice for Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” he said. “The court considers only on the police’s baseless report as the main evidence regardless of other witnesses here. For myself, I will not accept this…compensation because Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are not the killers.”
Human rights groups immediately condemned the trial and verdict as “unjust” and accused the court of playing politics rather than remaining an independent institution of fair justice.
“It seems impossible to have any trial or court that is independent,” Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group Licadho said outside the courtroom. “There was absolutely no evidence. This is just another example of an unjust verdict.”
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia also released a statement expressing “concern” over the trial and verdict.
“This trial hearing is the culmination of the many serious irregularities that have marked the case from its very beginning,” statement read.
Peter Leuprecht, the UN human rights envoy to Cambodia, said in a statement on July 8, 2004, “that there were many indications that the accused men had been chosen to take the blame regardless of the evidence suggested,” the statement continued. “Today’s proceedings at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court seem to have confirmed this assessment.”
In March 2004, Phnom Penh Investigating Judge Hing Thirith dismissed charges against the two men because he said there wasn’t enough evidence to try them. He was later transferred to Stung Treng provincial court and was recently suspended for a year for unknown reasons. The Appeals Court ordered further investigation in the case in July 2004.
Former Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea was a vocal critic of the government, had ties to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and angered many garment factory owners through his confrontational tactics.