Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang left Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1 on Thursday for the last time, putting behind them an ordeal that has lasted nearly a decade during which they were wrongfully imprisoned for a total of five years each for the murder of popular Free Trade Union (FTU) leader Chea Vichea.
A day after the Supreme Court acquitted both men due to a lack of evidence, they were driven out of Prey Sar’s main precinct as free men around 11 a.m.
Making their way on foot to the nearby Wat Ang Metrey, the two men occasionally made the sampeah gesture to assembled relatives, well-wishers and the press. As they arrived at the pagoda they were reunited with their families and made offerings to the Buddha.
Sitting side-by-side, a monk blessed them with water in a cleansing ceremony as they symbolically shed their old clothes to put on fresh ones.
Both men then embraced their relatives and Mr. Sam Oeun’s 3-year-old daughter clung to her father. He beamed as he buried his face in hers and kissed her.
For Mr. Sam Oeun and Mr. Samnang, a new life had just begun.
While the future now presents itself without walls, it is also an uncertain one for the men, both of whom said they are unsure what to do next.
Supreme Court presiding Judge Khim Pon on Tuesday informed the court the pair did not qualify for financial reparations despite the many years wrongly spent behind bars.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said that he regretted the court’s refusal to provide compensation.
Nevertheless, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath pledged $500 Thursday to each of the men to help them start putting their lives back together.
“I thank the Queen Mother for giving $500 to me, and I thank Licadho for giving me $100, 20 kg of milled rice and other provisions while we were in prison,” Mr. Samnang said.
“I was very surprised when I heard the Supreme Court had decided to release me,” he added.
Mr. Sam Oeun said he was convinced that Tuesday’s decision would go the other way.
“When the Phnom Penh Municipal Court originally sentenced me to 20 years, I thought that my life was over,” he said.
But his mother, 67-year-old Pros Theuy, felt sure that his day of retribution had finally come after consulting with a fortuneteller.
“He guessed that my son would be released,” she said, “so I hoped in my heart that the court would decide to release him.”
With the scapegoats finally free, the focus now returns to the assassination of Chea Vichea on January 22, 2004—shot dead at point-blank range while reading a copy of The Cambodia Daily outside Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district.
In a statement released Thursday, the opposition CNRP, which is currently boycotting the National Assembly due to contested election results, said the question still remains as to who killed Chea Vichea.
“The mistrials of the two scapegoats for almost a decade not only reveal gross violations of human rights, but a justice system that will continue to keep Cambodia in darkness until there is true leadership change,” the party said.
“The brutal killing of Chea Vichea cannot come to a close until the real killers are put on trial.”
But legal and labor experts said they were pessimistic that an investigation would ever be launched or yield any significant results.
Ever since the two men were accused and imprisoned for Chea Vichea’s murder—a moment that drew thousands of mourners onto the streets of Phnom Penh for his funeral procession—the victim’s family and rights workers have said all evidence points toward government involvement in the killing.
A direct accusation of high-level collusion in the killing of the country’s most popular union leader came in 2006 when the former Phnom Penh police chief, Heng Pov, gave a stunning interview to French magazine L’Express and said that then-National Police commissioner Hok Lundy—one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s closest allies—had fabricated the case against the two men to cover the real killers’ tracks.
Heng Pov was an adviser on security matters to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and a CPP undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, when he fled Cambodia ahead of his arrest for murder and many other serious crimes committed with the help of a unit of rogue police officers.
“I don’t think they would do [an investigation] effectively, because the case is linked to high-ranking officials,” said Moeun Tola, who heads the Community Legal Education Center’s labor project.
“I am very pessimistic for that promise [to investigate the killing], because I don’t think the judicial system would be reformed to benefit the common interest of the people. Whatever they do is to protect their existing interests,” Mr. Tola added.
The case against Mr. Samnang, 33, and Mr. Sam Oeun, 45, snaked through Cambodia’s judicial system for nearly a decade, following their arrests days after the killing.
The trial was dismissed on March 19, 2004, by then-Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Hing Thirith, who cited a lack of evidence. But, without explanation, Appeal Court Judge Thou Mony moved quickly to overturn Judge Thirith’s decision on June 1 and ordered that the murder charges be reinstated against the two men even though no new evidence had been presented.
Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun were convicted of Chea Vichea’s murder by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2005 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Supreme Court then threw their case back to the lower Appeal Court in 2008 for re-investigation due to a serious lack of evidence and intense scrutiny of the case. But the Court of Appeal chose to resentence the men in December 2012 for the killing.
Sam Pracheameanith, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vattana’s cabinet chief, declined to comment, as did judicial officials at the supreme and municipal courts on whether or not there would be a fresh investigation into Chea Vichea’s murder.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, said he is doubtful that an investigation of the almost 10-year-old case would be fruitful or that the real killers would ever be brought to justice.
“One point relates to ability, because the crime was committed many years ago and I do not trust the Cambodian police right now that they can investigate such a case,” he said.
“I don’t believe they can find the real killer.”
Chea Vichea’s murder adds to the country’s long and bloody list of those killed with impunity since 1993, including singers, actresses, politicians, journalists, many in cases believed to have been politically motivated and to have had the collusion of government forces, including the 1997 grenade attack that killed about a dozen people and injured more than 100 in front of the former parliament building in Phnom Penh.
Like Chea Vichea, no one has ever been held to account for these crimes.