The family of slain union activist Hy Vuthy were celebrating yesterday after the Supreme Court ordered the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to reopen the investigation into his death, more than three and a half years after the Free Trade Union leader was gunned down outside a Phnom Penh garment factory.
Hy Vuthy was fatally shot by two masked gunmen on Feb 24, 2007, as he left the Suntex factory in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district where he worked as representative for the FTU. Hy Vuthy’s union activities were widely considered to be the motivation behind the killing, though no suspects were ever arrested and no one was ever brought to trial.
“The Supreme Court decides to send the case of premeditated murder back to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for reinvestigation,” Presiding Judge Khim Pon said as he read out the verdict yesterday.
Judge Iv Kim Sry, a member of the five-judge panel that heard the case, yesterday read out a summary of the 2008 municipal court judgment that claimed the court had “identified” two suspects in the case.
However, the case was later dropped because the court could not find any information on the suspects, including their names, Judge Kim Sry said, adding that the Court of Appeal had upheld this decision in 2009.
On Jan 21, 2008, municipal police chief Touch Naruth claimed police were seeking to arrest two suspects in relation to Hy Vuthy’s case. One month later, he said police had no suspects in the case. Mr Naruth declined to comment yesterday.
The victim’s family, led by his widow Va Sopheak, appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the Municipal Court decision, according to the family’s lawyer Ham Sun Rith.
The Municipal Court decided to cease its investigation into the murder on Feb 27, 2008, while the Court of Appeal upheld this decision on Aug 5 that same year, said Mr Sun Rith—contradicting the date given by the Supreme Court.
“I think there is a new hope from what the Supreme Court indicates today,” said Mr Sun Rith—who is also deputy director for monitoring and protection with rights group Licadho.
Contacted by telephone yesterday, Hy Vuthy’s elder brother Youth Chheang Eang said he was very pleased by the court’s decision.
“I really regret my brother’s death, and I don’t know why he was killed,” he said.
Hy Vuthy’s killing in 2007 re-awakened memories of the shooting deaths of two other FTU leaders three years earlier. Ros Sovannareh was gunned down in May 2004, just four months after then-FTU President Chea Vichea was also shot dead.
Current FTU President Chea Mony—Chea Vichea’s brother—said at the time he believed the government had been complicit in Hy Vuthy and Ros Sovannareth’s murders.
Speaking by telephone yesterday, Mr Mony welcomed the Supreme Court decision but said that, like the cases of Chea Vichea and Ros Sovannareth, he did not believe police would be able to arrest the real culprits.
“This case could have a high-ranking person or important government official behind it. So police cannot arrest the suspects,” he said.
He said he did not think the government wanted to find the real killers.
“If the government wants to find the suspects, they can,” he said.
Citing a lack of evidence, the Supreme Court in Dec 2008 granted bail to Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were convicted of the Chea Vichea’s murder in 2005 in a case widely denounced as a frame-up.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said yesterday she did not think a new investigation would yield any results because police did not have a record of solving murders. She said she felt most Cambodians would be too scared to act as witnesses in this case.
“I don’t have hope that police will find suspects,” she said.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for the human rights organization Licadho, said the decision was just one step along the road to delivering justice for Hy Vuthy.
“Today’s decision was one step in the right direction. It basically puts us back to the start,” he said.
He said that the group hoped this would eventually lead to a conviction in the case. However, he said it would be naive to expect immediate results.
“Cambodia does not have a very good track record prosecuting the murders of union leaders, so we are not innocently believing that something will happen,” he said.
Mr Pellerin said he hoped the Supreme Court would now look into the case of Ros Sovannareth. Thach Saveth, a paratrooper, was convicted in 2005 and Licadho has called for his release for lack of evidence.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor project at the Community Legal Education Center, reiterated his belief that the murders of Hy Vuthy, Chea Vichea and Ros Sovannareth were intended to stop them carrying out their responsibilities as union leaders. He said he believed opposition figures like union leaders now faced a different kind of pressure.
“The trend has changed a little bit—from killing [union leaders]…to using the court system to silence them,” he said, citing court cases against union activists involved in September’s garment sector strikes as an example.
Government spokespeople have consistently denied any involvement in the union leaders’ murders. National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith yesterday claimed that authorities had not interfered with police investigations into the killings.
“We try our best to provide a service for our people’s security…to be national police, not the party police,” he said.
He said that, despite the court orders, police had never stopped investigating the case. But he urged the public to remember that not every case is easy to solve.
“We try our best to do investigations, but when the result is not convenient to the public, the public criticize us,” he said.