Two men accused of killing prominent union leader Chea Vichea were paraded in front of reporters Thursday and police promised more arrests in what opposition leader Sam Rainsy called “a show.”
Hauled into police headquarters with black sacks pulled over their heads and hands cuffed, the two suspects were identified as Sok Sam Oeun, 36, and Born Samnang, 23. Others who were detained earlier in the week were released.
The two men were promised $5,000 to carry out the killing of Chea Vichea, said Municipal Police Chief Suon Chheangly at a news conference. They had already been paid $1,500, he said.
Chea Vichea was shot three times at close range Jan 22 as he read a newspaper at a newsstand near Independence Monument. He was president of the powerful Free Trade Union of Workers and an outspoken critic of the government. His death drew international attention and thousands of mourners in Phnom Penh.
Accused of carrying out the country’s most high-profile killing in years, Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang wailed in front of reporters that they were innocent and that police had beaten them.
“Please mister journalists, please take my photograph, because I am innocent,” cried Sok Sam Oeun, 36. “I was at home with my friend at the time, I did not kill anyone.”
“If police kill me, if they behead me, I am still innocent. If I did it, the earth can take my body.”
As the suspects pleaded, Municipal Deputy police chiefs Heng Pov and Suon Chheangly sat quietly to the side. After about five minutes they motioned for the suspects to be taken out of the room, and proclaimed that police were committed to making more arrests and capturing
the mastermind of the assassination.
“Some politicians have said the government must find the culprit in one week, but now we arrest the suspects in only two days,” said Suon Chheangly. He said police were seeking the man who hired the two suspects as killers.
Police said the two suspects were arrested Wednesday and that a confession by Born Samnang led them to Sok Sam Oeun.
They did not say what evidence led them to Born Samnang.
The latest in a string of assassination-style attacks in the capital, the killing of Chea Vichea is widely believed to be politically motivated. King Norodom Sihanouk has said the killings were tied to politics.
Sam Rainsy called the arrests and press conference Thursday a “show.”
“This is a travesty of a police investigation. It is just a show,” Sam Rainsy said. “They have not arrested the real culprit, or any suspects with any basis for suspicion.”
“This is a show to divert attention,” he said.
The brother of Chea Vichea also said the arrests were a fraud.
“These arrests are bogus,” said Chea Mony. “The real criminals are not so frightened, because they are very aggressive and can kill on the street. Those kinds of killers are well protected.”
The investigation has already taken some bizarre twists. When police rounded up at least four suspects on Wednesday, they raided the house of a former Funcinpec RCAF colonel in Tuol Kork and arrested three of his bodyguards.
“They confiscated everything from me illegally and I cannot do anything,” Colonel Suong Sopul said. “I just want to stay alive.”
Sok Sam Oeun was the fourth man arrested in that raid, and is reported to be a friend of Colonel Suong Sopul’s sons.
The remaining three were released midday Thursday, after more than 24 hours of detention without any explanation, said Prak Salim, 36, who was one of those arrested.
“They didn’t tell us anything,” he said Thursday afternoon, laughing nervously.
To many observers, Thursday’s news conference was also a strange event, beginning when police thundered into the parking lot in a truck accompanied by the sirens of four motorcycles.
The two suspects later gushed about their innocence.
“I have never walked near that pagoda” where Chea Vichea was shot, cried Born Samnang. “I don’t know anything…. This is an injustice. They mistreat me. I am an innocent person.”
Kem Sokha, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and recently placed on a publicized list of possible assassination targets, said the logic of the arrests and the subsequent press parade were difficult to understand.
“I don’t know why they let those men stand in front of journalists like that, I don’t know. There is no transparency,” he said.