Two women who have given alibis for a suspect in the murder of union leader Chea Vichea emerged from hiding on Wednesday morning to meet with the judge investigating the case at Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The two women arrived at the courthouse with officials from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and local rights organization Licadho.
Vieng Thi Hong, 20, and her mother, Nguyen Thi Ngoeun, 36, told reporters on Feb 8 that suspect Born Samnang had been at their Prey Veng province village near the Neak Loeung ferry crossing at the time Chea Vichea was fatally shot.
Numerous neighbors, including small children, recognized Born Samnang from a photograph and corroborated the women’s story.
At the courthouse on Wednesday, they stuck to that story.
Vieng Thi Hong gave her testimony to Investigating Judge Hing Thirith in the presence of Chum Sovannaly, an attorney from the Cambodian Defenders Project.
Chum Sovannaly has taken up Born Samnang’s case since the court-appointed attorney, Long Dara, told reporters last week that he could not do much for Born Samnang because he already had confessed to the killing.
“She told me the same story that she told the press,” Judge Hing Thirith said later.
“She said that Born Samnang was not at the scene of the killing. He was at Neak Loeung.”
Hing Thirith said he could not estimate the importance of Vieng Thi Hong’s statement on the case, as relatives often testify on behalf of loved ones.
Though not officially married, Born Samnang and Vieng Thi Hong consider themselves to be husband and wife.
While Vieng Thi Hong was in the judge’s chambers, an officer from the Tuol Kok Penal Police Office arrived at the courthouse. He loitered outside until the witnesses and their escorts left the building.
Once out of the policeman’s earshot, Vieng Thi Hong told Chum Sovannaly and the rights workers that she recognized the officer who was the same man who had initially taken her and Born Samnang into custody on Jan 28 in Prey Veng province. Vieng Thi Hong had earlier reported that the arrest took place on Jan 27.
When the police officer was asked Wednesday why he had hung around the court that morning, he said, “I went to the court to give more evidence…but the investigating judge was busy, so I went back [to the station]. I did not go there to follow them.”
Vieng Thi Hong had wanted to tell the investigating judge about the policeman presence in the courthouse, but the investigating judge was not present then, her lawyer said.
He added that Vieng Thi Hong did appear intimidated.
On Feb 9, the Vieng Thi Hong and her mother were taken from their home and interrogated by police regarding their alibis for Born Samnang.
Vieng Thi Hong was reportedly taken to Phnom Penh by Tuol Kok police officers, but released that evening.
The removal of Vieng Thi Hong from her village prompted the human rights group Amnesty International to issue an urgent statement expressing concern for her safety and the conduct of the police investigation.
Vieng Thi Hong and her mother declined to answer reporters’ questions on Wednesday.
Rights workers said Tuesday that there are numerous other witnesses who will testify that Born Samnang and his fellow suspect, Sok Sam Oeun, 36, were not at the scene of Chea Vichea’s killing.
But conflicting with the claims from witnesses who said that Born Samnang was in Prey Veng on the day Chea Vichea was killed, is Meas Sovann, proprietor of the Ny Ny Guesthouse in Phnom Penh.
He told reporters Tuesday that Born Samnang had stayed at his establishment on Phnom Penh’s Sothearos Boulevard either the night of Jan 21 or Jan 22.
In Born Samnang’s Jan 30 televised confession, he told police that after killing Chea Vichea, he and his partner had split up after agreeing to meet at the Ny Ny to divide the money paid to them for the killing—$3,500, the second installment of their $5,000 total fee.
Meas Sovann said he had seen the confession on television and recognized Born Samnang. He said that the next day commune police had called him in for questioning.
Meas Sovann told reporters that Born Samnang had arrived at the guesthouse between 7 and 9 pm, rented Room No 104, a double, and stayed there by himself.
Shown a picture of Sok Sam Oeun, Meas Sovann said he could not remember seeing the second suspect because so many customers visit his guesthouse. He said he had no record of Born Samnang’s stay.
But in his confession, Born Samnang said that he did not go to the Ny Ny Guesthouse because he did not want to wait for his payment.