The Supreme Court yesterday granted bail to Thach Saveth, a former paratrooper sentenced to 15 years in prison for the 2004 killing of Free Trade Union leader Ros Sovannareth, and ordered that the Court of Appeal reinvestigate the nearly seven-year-old case.
The announcement was met with startled murmurs in the small but packed courtroom from which the accused, 28, was noticeably absent.
Judge Khim Pon said after reviewing the case the court found the evidence against Mr Saveth, based solely on witnesses, was insufficient.
“It must be reinvestigated,” said Judge Pon, chief of the five-judge panel. “The Supreme Court should release this convicted person on bail.”
Despite yesterday’s ruling, Mr Saveth remained behind bars in Prey Sar Prison, his lawyer and NGO workers said yesterday evening. Mr Saveth’s paperwork was reportedly stalled at the courthouse, awaiting a signature from Prosecutor General Chea Leang who was busy, Mr Saveth’s attorney Sam Charoeun said.
The court’s ruling was similar to its December 2008 decision in the case of Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang, the two men jailed but later freed for the 2004 murder of FTU leader Chea Vichea. In that case, the court acknowledged the lack of evidence against them and the need for further investigation and ordered their release on bail. The re-investigation into the case is still pending.
Mr Charoeun said he was “a little bit happy but still not satisfied with the judgment.” According to the ruling, Mr Saveth is still under judicial supervision, meaning he must appear in court if summoned and cannot leave the country.
Srun Leang, deputy director of Prey Sar Prison, where Mr Saveth has been held since 2009, said the prisoner was sent to Phnon Penh along with five other prisoners heading to the Municipal Court. When asked why Mr Saveth did not arrive at the Supreme Court for his hearing, Mr Leang said he did not know.
Mr Saveth’s mother Huon Phalla cried after hearing the news outside the courthouse. She thanked NGOs for investigating the case and helping. She repeated that her son was innocent, something he has maintained since the beginning of his legal case.
“I knew that my son was not involved with this case. My neighbors, they know my son. He has never done anything wrong,” she said. “I’m crying today because I am surprised.”
Ros Sovannareth, an FTU steering committee member and the union’s representative at the Trinunggal Komara factory in Phnom Penh, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle as he drove home on the evening of May 7, 2004.
Rights groups have long called for Mr Saveth’s release, saying the evidence used to convict him was slim, though his legal fight was largely eclipsed by the high-profile case of Chea Vichea. The similarities between the two cases, however, are striking.
The same Toul Kok district police, led by deputy chief Hun Song, who arrested Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun, also arrested Mr Saveth.
Mr Saveth’s February 2005 trial lasted only an hour, and his conviction was based on written statements prepared by the police from eyewitnesses who allegedly identified him. However, none of the six witnesses was questioned by an investigating judge or the prosecutor or testified at the trial.
During the trial, Mr Saveth stated he was traveling from Oddar Meanchey to Siem Reap province at the time of the murder. The defense called two witnesses to corroborate the alibi only to have Municipal Court Judge Sao Meach reject them since they were relatives of the accused.
Several rights groups lauded the Supreme Court’s ruling as well as FTU president Chea Mony, Chea Vichea’s younger brother.
“Mr Saveth is not the killer. He is innocent,” he said, again comparing the case to that of his slain brother.
Country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Christophe Peschoux welcomed the verdict and hoped a second investigation would help justice to be served.
“This decision reaffirms the role of the Supreme Court as the ultimate recourse for justice in this country,” he wrote. “We hope that the reinvestigation will lead to the prosecution of the perpetrators. This would not only uphold justice but would end impunity in this case and strengthen the protection of trade unionists in the future.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, also praised the decision but said it was bittersweet given that Mr Saveth was not acquitted and that the killers of Chea Vichea, Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy, another FTU leader killed in 2007, remain at large.
“They don’t have any justice for them yet,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)