Union Leader’s Killers Wrongly Jailed: Witness

The key eyewitness in the 2004 killing of union leader Chea Vichea has said that the two men currently serving 20-year sentences for his murder are innocent and should be released, according to a statement obtained Sunday.

In testimony written in August in Bangkok, where she was seeking asylum with the UN for fear of her life, Va Sothy said she is certain Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun did not kill the Free Trade Union leader.

Va Sothy, who ran the Phnom Penh newsstand where Chea Vichea was gunned down in broad daylight Jan 22, 2004, also said that in the wake of the killing, she was told to remain silent by now-disgraced former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov.

Va Sothy said that she feared she would be killed if she stayed in Cambodia.

“Please, release the two prisoners Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun and let them be free to live their normal lives because they are not the real murderers,” Va Sothy wrote in the statement, which she signed and thumb­printed Aug 10 in presence of a Bangkok-based notary lawyer.

Va Sothy says that Chea Vichea’s real killer, who appeared to be a “skilled professional,” arrived on the back of a Honda Dream motorbike shortly before 8 am on the morning of the murder.

Chea Vichea, his killer and Va Sothy all stood together reading newspapers at the newsstand outside Wat Langka for some 20 minutes before the killer shot the union leader at point-blank range.

“I heard three loud gunshots fired very close to me, and Mr Chea Vichea began to fall to the ground,” Va Sothy recalled in her statement.

“I saw a black pistol in the hand of the man who was standing in front of me and who shot Chea Vichea from very close range, within touching distance,” she said. “[T]hen he put the gun into his trouser pocket and calmly walked away in a normal manner,” she said.

“The murderer looked respectable and well-educated and like a skilled professional,” she wrote. “He looked wary at all times, and patient.”

Va Sothy describes the killer as approximately 160 cm tall, aged between 27 and 30, with straight hair parted at the side, thick eyebrows, a blunt nose, small ears, no sideburns and “medium black skin.”

She describes his driver, who left after dropping off the killer, as being approximately 25 with a similar complexion to the killer, and hair also parted at the side.

“He seemed wary and energetic,” she recalled.

Va Sothy claims that because she feared the assassination of Chea Vichea was connected to high-ranking officials, she originally told the police that she didn’t see anything.

“I said I did not remember the face of the murderer,” she said. “I did not provide the police the correct information because I felt that, if I told them the truth, my life would be in danger and I would be killed to destroy the evidence,” she added.

Va Sothy remained silent about the killer until she saw police sketches of the alleged killers that were said to be based on witness testimony. The pictures were released to the press on Jan 26, 2004.

As she was the only witness at the newsstand, Va Sothy said she decided to phone then-deputy Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov to ask where the images had come from.

Heng Pov, who earlier this month was convicted in absentia for gunning down municipal court judge Sok Sethamony in April 2003, led the investigation into Chea Vichea’s killing.

“Mr Heng Pov told me ‘I already arrested the murderers last night. You stay quiet and answer as you’re told, and tell others that these two people are the murderers of Chea Vichea,’” Va Sothy claimed in her statement.

Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested on Jan 28, 2004. The following day, the two men were hauled into the municipal police headquarters with black sacks on their heads to be paraded in front of the media. After the sacks were removed, both proclaimed their innocence and said they had been beaten by the police.

Va Sothy said in her statement that when she saw Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang on television, she knew immediately that they were not the killers.

“I could clearly remember the faces of the murderers and they were not the same,” she said.

But Va Sothy said she remained silent because she noticed that the police were watching her daily activities “all the time.”

Va Sothy also recalls a chilling visit that the actual killer of Chea Vichea made to her newsstand a month after the arrests of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun.

The killer arrived on a large, low-riding black motorbike that may have been a Honda Rebel, she said.

“[H]e asked me ‘What newspapers are out today?’” she said. “I turned to face the questioner and was astonished and frightened to see that he was the murderer who shot Chea Vichea.”

“The murderer stared into my face and then went to his motorbike and drove away without buying anything,” she recalled.

Va Sothy said she did not attend the trial of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun in August 2005 because she was afraid that if she did so she would be killed.

“I will be killed if I continue to live in Cambodia and I will never have an opportunity to tell the truth to the nation and international community about the murder,” she said.

“I therefore decided to leave Cambodia with great sadness and regret and to seek asylum from the United Nations in Thailand,” she added.

On Friday the Appeal Court will hear Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun’s appeal to overturn their conviction by the municipal court for Chea Vichea’s murder, an NGO worker familiar with the case said on Sunday.

Margo Picken, head of the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh, said the UN office in Bangkok had received a copy of the statement. She declined further comment.

Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said he welcomed Va Sothy’s statement.

“We welcome the evidence and we hope it brings justice to the victim,” he said, without elaborating.

He added that Va Sothy should have provided the government with the statement.

“It would be difficult for the authorities if she doesn’t share the evidence,” he added.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Sunday that he was aware of Va Sothy’s statement and referred further questions to the court.

But he added that Heng Pov may be able to provide useful information on the case.

“If Heng Pov comes he will tell who the killer is. Please ask Heng Pov,” Khieu Sopheak said.

Heng Pov, who has been accused of a host of crimes, fled the country in July and is also seeking political asylum.

Khieu Sopheak said Va Sothy has nothing to fear if she returns to Cambodia. “She would have been safe here,” he said. “She wanted to be in a Western country.”

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap also said the courts and human rights groups in Cambodia would ensure Va Sothy’s safety.

“She should remain in Cambodia and provide evidence so she can help Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” he said. He added that the two men were convicted based on their own confessions.

Chea Mony, current Free Trade Union president and brother of Chea Vichea, said Heng Pov must know who killed his sibling.

Chea Mony also said he hopes Va Sothy’s statement will lead to Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang being freed.

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