Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions called Wednesday for the release of two men serving 20-year sentences for the 2004 murder of union leader Chea Vichea, claming that the men were wrongly convicted.
Their statements came two days before the Appeals Court hearing of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, which is slated for Friday.
London-based Amnesty International said the Free Trade Union leader’s killing was politically motivated, that Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang are innocent, and that the handling of the case “shines a spotlight on deficiencies in the Cambodian judicial system.”
“Investigations by local human rights NGOs, concerned by the allegations of torture to obtain confessions, revealed that the accused, both petty criminals, had alibis,” Amnesty said.
Amnesty details what it calls “serious irregularities” around the August 2005 trial where Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang were convicted. These range from the reassigning of the original judge who dismissed the case, to allegations that police beat Born Samnang into confessing.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Phnom Penh Municipal Court was right to convict Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun as they confessed to the killing.
He also said the government does not respond to accusations made about the killing by NGOs, as they have no evidence to back up their claims. He also reiterated that the government was not behind Chea Vichea’s killing.
“Chea Vichea’s assassination was not politically motivated,” he said, adding that Chea Vichea was not a competitor of the CPP.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the controversial trial of the two men failed to meet international standards of due process and fairness.
“Since the arrest of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun…the case against the two men has been characterized by political interference in an effort to find a scapegoat for the murder,” Rights Watch said.
“At no stage during the trial did the authorities offer relevant or reliable evidence that would establish the men’s guilt,” Rights Watch added.
Kong Set, the judge who presided over the original trial, said he could not recall the case and declined to discuss his verdict Wednesday.
“I forget all the information about the case, it was a long time ago,” he said.
Sok Roeun, the deputy prosecutor in the original trial, said the case was now out of his hands.
“We decided the case. Any information should be asked for from the Appeals Court,” he said.
In a complaint filed with the International Labor Organization Wednesday, the ICFTU, which represents 155 million workers in 156 countries, said it regretted the continued silence by the government in the case.
“[The confederation] strongly deplores the absence of any initiative by the government to reopen the investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea and to conduct an independent judicial inquiry into the killing of Ros Sovannareth,” the statement said. Ros Sovannareth, chief representative of the Free Trade Union, was gunned down in Phnom Penh on May 7, 2004.
The statement decries the overall “climate of intimidation” which Cambodian trade unionists have had to operate in.
“The climate of violence that trade unionists have had to operate in since the murder of Chea Vichea…continues to raise serious doubts as to whether the government of Cambodia is genuinely committed to the protection of trade union rights,” the statement said.
The confederation also recounts an interview one of its researchers conducted with Born Samnang’s mother, Noun Kim Sry, in August this year.
“My son told me that the policemen beat him a lot after his arrest, including on his head,” Noun Kim Sry is quoted as saying. “They were pushing him to say he was the killer of Chea Vichea.”
“As he was still refusing to do what they asked, the policemen had beaten him again, finally they forced him to put his fingerprint under the letter,” confessing his guilt, she added.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak denied that the men were ever beaten. Inmates in Cambodia are never tortured, he added.
“No torture for any inmates,” he said.
The confederation concludes that the new testimony of Born Samnang’s mother and the recently released statement of eyewitness Va Sothy, who has proclaimed the innocence of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, “confirm the direct involvement of the authorities in ensuing that two innocent men were convicted for the murder of Chea Vichea.”
“These recent testimonies point to the direct responsibility of the government in hiding the true course of events and preventing the murderer of Chea Vichea and those who instigated his killing being found and held to account,” the confederation said.
It also expressed concern for the safety of Chea Vichea’s brother, Free Trade Union President Chea Mony.
“Chea Mony is living under great pressure and threats from employers as well as from the government,” the statement claimed.
Chea Mony said he will boycott the Friday Appeals Court, predicting it would be a farce. “It is just the government’s comedy hearing,” he said.
He also said that he has been living in growing fear as he collects more evidence and documents surrounding his brother’s killing.
“I have criticized the government a lot, the government doesn’t like me,” he said.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 rights organizations, also urged the Appeals Court to release Born Samnang and Sok Som Oeun. CHRAC also accused the municipal court of convicting the pair with inadequate evidence.