The Court of Appeal yesterday resentenced two men, widely believed to be scapegoats framed for the murder of Free Trade Union (FTU) leader Chea Vichea, to 20 years in prison—a verdict that even the victim’s brother said was wholly unjust.
The decision, which flew in the face of international outcry over their original sentencing and a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that called for the case against the pair to be dismissed and reinvestigated for lack of evidence, was the culmination of an Appeal Court retrial hearing on November 7 in which no new evidence was presented.
Born Samnang, 31, and Sok Sam Oeun, 44, cried and wailed as they were led away from the courtroom where presiding Judge Chuon Sunleng meted out the sentences and ordered the men’s rearrest for the fatal shooting of Chea Vichea as he read a newspaper outside Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district on January 22, 2004.
“The court sentences Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun to 20 years each in prison, and orders them to pay 40 million riel [about $10,000] to Chea Mony,” Judge Sunleng said, referring to the dead union leader’s brother.
“The court orders the detention of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for premeditated murder.”
The men clasped their hands together as they were shuffled out of the court and into a waiting vehicle before being whisked away to Prey Sar prison.
“It is very unjust, and I ask the King to please help me,” Mr. Samnang yelled through his tears. “I am not a murderer, but they arrested me again.”
Mr. Sam Oeun, whose sobbing wife walked behind him clutching their 2-year-old daughter, also begged for justice.
“It is very unjust because I know nothing about this case,” Mr. Sam Oeun cried.
But unlike scenes outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday, where a Boeng Kak activist was sentenced to three years in prison, all was relatively quiet on the grounds of the Appeal Court. Among the few people milling around was Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, who said the verdict was unacceptable.
“I think the real murderers will not be found, because the fake murderers are now convicted men,” he said.
On March 19, 2004, municipal court investigating Judge Hing Thirith dismissed the case against Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun, citing a lack of evidence. But Judge Thirith was removed from his post five days later and transferred to the Stung Treng Provincial Court.
On June 1, 2004, Appeal Court Judge Thou Mony overturned Judge Thirith’s decision and ordered that the murder charges against Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun be reinstated.
Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun were convicted of Chea Vichea’s murder by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2005 and each sentenced to 20-year jail terms in a flawed case built largely upon the police investigation of then-Phnom Penh Police Chief Heng Pov. Later, Heng Pov would be promoted to security adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and also made an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry.
Heng Pov, however, suffered a spectacular fall from grace inside the country’s power-political circles, and is now serving more than 100 years in jail on a host of criminal charges, including the assassination of a municipal court judge.
In August 2006, the French weekly L’Express magazine published an interview with Heng Pov while he was a fugitive in Singapore, in which he claimed that then-National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy orchestrated the arrests of Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun as scapegoats for the killing of the outspoken union leader Chea Vichea.
“It did not take long for me to understand that the two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder,” Heng Pov was quoted as saying by L’Express.
At Mr. Samnang’s and Mr. Sam Oeun’s retrial on November 7, Heng Pov declined to give testimony, claiming that his recent embrace of Christianity while imprisoned at Prey Sar prison prevented him from doing so.
During that hearing, the Appeal Court prosecutor presented practically no new evidence against the two men and said the second investigation into the killing drew the same conclusion as the first: that the two men were behind the crime, even though both have firm alibis that put them elsewhere at the time.
Chea Mony, who was voted into the role as FTU leader following his older brother’s murder, decried the culmination of yesterday’s retrial as a farce.
“I will regret this for my whole life, because I have not gotten justice yet” for my brother, Mr. Mony said.
“The Appeal Court sentenced Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, but they are the false murderers.
“There is a lot of evidence that cleared them as the real murderers; Va Rithy, the newspaper stall owner at the scene where Chea Vichea was shot…Heng Pov said they were not the murderers and the King Father [Norodom Sihanouk] said when he was still alive that they were not murderers,” Mr. Mony added.
An eyewitness to the murder of Chea Vichea, Ms. Rithy fled the country with U.N. help after she was visited and warned to keep her mouth shut by the actual killer of Chea Vichea weeks after the arrest of Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Oeun.
A FTU letter sent to Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema on Wednesday said 150 garment workers would march to the spot of Chea Vichea’s assassination on the 9th anniversary of his death on January 22.
A statement issued yesterday by a coalition of 19 NGOs condemned the upholding of the “grossly unfair” verdict, and said a mountain of evidence, which should have been sufficient enough to exonerate the two, was duly ignored by the court.
“This verdict adds to the many tragedies which occurred in 2012, making it the wors[t] year in over a decade when it comes to human rights and rule of law,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in the statement. “We urge the Supreme Court to quickly reverse today’s decision and put an end to this gross farce by finding the pair not guilty of a crime they simply didn’t commit.”
Moeun Tola, head of the Cambodian Legal Education Center’s Labor Program, said the verdict had left him “speechless.”
“The Appeal Court decision defies any sense of justice and rule of law,” he added.
Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation, said delivering such a verdict during the mourning period for late King Father Norodom Sihanouk—who believed the pair to be innocent, and publicly said so—was “disgraceful.”
According to Mr. Samnang and Mr. Sam Ouen’s lawyers, an appeal was immediately filed yesterday with the Supreme Court —the institution that once found the men to have been unfairly convicted. That filing is the last chance the convicted men have of being exonerated before all avenues are exhausted.
“We appeal to the Supreme Court to find justice,” Mr. Samnang’s lawyer Chum Sovannaly said.
Holding her daughter after her husband was driven away to prison, Mr. Sam Oeun’s wife Neang Khen, 30, said the future would be filled with despair.
“I will live alone without my husband, so I will not have anyone to help me,” she said.