Still No Justice for Slain Union Leaders, or Their Alleged Killers

Sok Sam Oeun spent most of the day Thursday harvesting rice on a small plot of land he owns in Takeo province’s Kiri Vong district. He also raises poultry and grows vegetables, and occasionally takes on construction work when he needs to make a little extra.

“It is enough to make a living,” he said.

Married for the second time last year, Mr Sam Oeun and his wife celebrated the birth of a baby daughter in November.

“Now I am trying to make a new life,” he said.

Two years ago, Mr Sam Oeun was celebrating for a different reason. Along with co-accused Born Samnang, he had just been re­leased on bail after spending almost five years in prison for the murder of Free Trade Union President Chea Vichea.

“Sometimes when I’m sitting and I’m reminded of the past, I feel very surprised. I did nothing wrong at all, but I was imprisoned,” he said by telephone.

Chea Vichea was gunned down at a Phnom Penh newsstand on Jan 22, 2004. Six days later, Mr Sam­nang and Mr Sam Oeun were arrested.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court found them guilty of the murder in August 2005 and sentenced them to 20 years in prison each. Local and international rights groups widely and publicly condemned the trial as merely a show.

When the Supreme Court finally heard their case, two years ago today, the pair were released on bail after serving 1,799 days.

“This case will end when they are officially acquitted of killing Chea Vichea,” said Mathieu Pel­lerin, a consultant with rights group Licadho.

Though the memory of their imprisonment remains with them, Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun at least enjoy their freedom. Thach Saveth, a 28-year-old former paratrooper sentenced in 2005 to 15 years for the murder of FTU leader Ros Sovannareth, remains in jail.

A member of the union’s steering committee, Ros Sovannareth was shot and killed on May 7, 2004. The municipal court convicted Mr Saveth of the murder in February 2005.

Both Mr Saveth’s trial and his February 2009 appeal bore remarkable similarities to those of Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun, and drew equal condemnation from rights groups.

A team from the Community Le­gal Education Center visited Mr Saveth in Prey Sar Prison Thurs­day, said Moeun Tola, head of the center’s labor program.

Mr Saveth continues to maintain his innocence, although the six years he has now spent in prison have taken their toll on his body, Mr Tola said.

“He is not so fine. He seems to have health problems,” he said.

An appeal has been lodged with the Supreme Court, but Mr Saveth is still waiting for his case to be heard, said Licadho’s Mr Pellerin.

He believes Mr Saveth’s situation has been somewhat overshadowed by higher-profile cases like those of Chea Vichea and Hy Vuthy—ano­ther FTU leader whose February 2007 murder remains unsolved.

“Unfortunately, [Mr Saveth] is less appealing, but he is as much of an innocent as Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. So he deserves the same justice,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers and FTU leaders have often stated their conviction that senior government officials were behind the killings, a charge the ruling party has flatly denied.

“Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun’s case is an example that some powerful political figures were behind [Chea Vichea’s] killing,” SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Thursday.

“As long as they are still in power, we cannot find the truth,” he said.

Chea Mony, younger brother of Chea Vichea and current FTU president, Thursday urged authorities to find justice for his brother.

Neither Judge Chiv Keng, president of the municipal court, nor government spokes­man Khieu Kan­harith could be reached for comment Thursday, while calls to National Police spokesman Kirth Chan­tharith went unanswered.

Speaking last month after the Supreme Court reopened the investigation into Hy Vuthy’s murder, Mr Chantharith claimed authorities had not interfered with police investigations into the union leaders’ killings.

“We try our best to provide a service for our people’s security…to be national police, not the party police,” he said.

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