Peam Ro district, Prey Veng province – The man being held for the killing of Chea Vichea was celebrating the Chinese New Year more than 60 km outside of Phnom Penh at the time of the Jan 22 shooting, residents of Village 6, a Vietnamese-Cambodian enclave just south of the Neak Leoung ferry crossing, said Sunday.
A newspaper featuring Born Samnang’s photograph was passed around and recognition registered on all faces, including the small children.
He was here for a week, drinking wine, dancing in the road, playing karaoke, villagers said.
Phnom Penh Municipal police presented Born Samnang, 23, and Sok Sam Oeun, 36, to reporters on Jan 29 as the men responsible for gunning down the union leader and opposition party activist at a newsstand near Wat Langka.
The two suspects, handcuffed and hooded, were paraded before journalists, and Municipal Police Chief Suon Chheangly boasted of the investigation’s swift results. Once the sacks were removed from their heads, the men gave emotional pleas of innocence and alleged police had beaten them.
But on Jan 30, Born Samnang declared himself Chea Vichea’s killer, saying he had carried out the hit for $5,000.
“Born Samnang stayed here, so he is not the killer,” Gueng Thinhieng, 36, mother of the suspect’s girlfriend, said Sunday.
“He stayed here from [Jan] 20 to [Jan] 26, and then police came to arrest him and send him to Phnom Penh early on the morning of [Jan] 27,” she said.
“He had no gun. He had only three pairs of pants,” Geung Thinhieng said, motioning to a child.
The child went to the clothesline and returned with a pair of laundered trousers she said belonged to Born Samnang.
“He fell in love with my daughter about one month ago. I studied his character. He’s very gentle and kind, so I allowed them to love each other as husband and wife,” Geung Thinhieng said.
Then her daughter, Geung Thihong, 20, returned from gathering tamarind. Her expression turned grave when she saw the newspaper bearing a photograph of her lover in police custody.
Geung Thihong said she arrived in Village 6 on Jan 19. Born Samnang followed her down in a taxi the next day. Her younger sister met him at the ferry landing, she said.
They spent the week partying, with Born Samnang occasionally proclaiming his devotion to Geung Thihong, said both the girl and her mother.
Local police arrived on the morning of Jan 27, a little after 2 am. They invited Born Samnang and Geung Thihong to the Neak Leoung station. The two were driven to Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district station. Geung Thihong was released after several days.
Geung Thinhieng said police gave her $7.50 for the taxi fare required to travel to the capital and recover her daughter.
“We will be witnesses, because [Born Samnang] stayed here and all the people know him,” Geung Thihong said.
Asked why Born Samnang confessed to Chea Vichea’s murder, she said, “Police threatened him with 10 years imprisonment. I didn’t hear them, but Samnang told me they said we would both spend 10 years in Prey Sar [prison].”
“If he didn’t confess, his family and my family would be in danger,” Geung Thihong continued. “But I am not afraid. I’ll tell you the real story about my husband.”
Her mother also said she did not fear reprisals for speaking to reporters.
Municipal Deputy Police Chief Heng Pov called the stories from Village 6 “crazy.”
“It is not true. We have video tape of the confession,” Heng Pov said. “If [Born Samnang] is a good man, why did his mother renounce him on Jan 19, 2004? Then he was broke, so on the 22nd he shot Chea Vichea.”
Geung Thihong said that Born Samnang and his mother had fallen out after she learned of her son’s love affair. Telephone calls to the suspect’s mother went unanswered.
“Why does his mother-in-law have such a good memory on this case? For example, if you ate something on the fifth, would you remember now what kind of food you ate?” the deputy chief asked.
“He confessed. We have evidence. He showed us his gun in its hiding place. This is not only a CPP investigation. We have Funcinpec and CPP police working together on this investigation,” Heng Pov said.
At the news conference where Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were presented in hoods, police said that a confession by Born Samnang had led to Sok Sam Oeun’s arrest but did not say why they arrested Born Samnang.
Opposition party leaders have dismissed the investigation into Chea Vichea’s killing as a charade, and witnesses to the murder have said police did not question them about what they saw on Jan 22.
Meanwhile, King Norodom Sihanouk on Friday called the police’s televised news conference an “amusing filmed comedy,” in which the “producer did not have the intelligence” to direct the “false ‘assassin'” to act like a remorseful criminal.
In the message, titled “Drollery,” which was posted on his Web site, the King also noted that the suspect’s face “strangely resembled” the police’s sketch, which, the King wrote, was made without consulting any eyewitnesses who could identify him.
“Myself and many other television viewers become thus perfect fools who must take black for white,” he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung)