Rights Groups Condemn Verdict of Murdered Journalist

The verdict issued Wednesday by the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court dropping the charges against a military police officer and his wife who were allegedly involved in the murder of an investigative journalist is a travesty of justice and a sign of impunity in the country, rights groups said Thursday.

Hang Serei Odom, 42, a reporter for the Virakchun Khmer Daily, was found hacked to death, his body stuffed in the trunk of his car, in O’Chum district on September 11. In the months before his murder, he had written about officials involved in the illegal luxury timber trade.

Two days after the journalist’s body was found, military police Captain An Bunheng and his wife, Sim Vy, were arrested when police discovered a pair of Hang Serei Odom’s shoes in the couple’s restaurant where he had been drinking the night before he disappeared.

The provincial court on Wednesday dropped all charges against the couple, and ordered their release, which has not yet been granted.

London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness issued a statement Wednesday blasting the court for its decision and said that the verdict was another example of impunity within the judiciary.

“The Cambodian justice system has yet again failed those who risk their lives to defend their rights and protect the country’s rapidly vanishing forests,” Megan MacInnes, a Global Witness campaigner, said in the statement. “This is the latest example of the shocking climate of impunity in Cambodia.”

Ms. MacInnes added Hang Serei Odom’s death to a list of people killed in the fight for the country’s land and forests, along with the 2012 death of environmental activist Chut Wutty and Heng Chantha, a 14-year-old girl who was shot and killed during a land eviction in Kratie province.

“Cambodia’s political and business elite are getting rich selling off the country’s land and forests whilst those that stand in their way are…too often losing their lives,” Ms. MacInnes said. “Hang Serei Oudom appears to be yet another casualty of this war.”

“The investigation into his murder must be reopened and those responsible found and punished.”

Local rights group Adhoc, which has been closely monitoring the case, criticized the court procedure during the initial investigation of the case, in which important evidence such as phone records were not examined or retrieved in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

A panel of three judges ordered a re-investigation in May citing a lack of evidence after hearings were held in March and April. During a hearing on August 2, witnesses testified to hearing somebody shouting for help from the couple’s restaurant on the night the journalist disappeared.

Provincial Adhoc coordinator Chhay Thy said the couple has not yet been released as the provincial deputy prosecutor has not signed the court’s verdict.

“We are extremely concerned for the slain journalist’s wife because the perpetrators are not found and it seems the court couldn’t find any criminals to face prosecution for the murder of a journalist in this province,” he said.

Court officials could not be reached for comment.

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