Cambodia: Drop Case Against Men Framed for Murder

(New York) – The Cambodian government should drop its case against two men wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the 2004 murder of labor leader Chea Vichea, Human Rights Watch said today. The Supreme Court will re-hear the case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun on September 25, 2013.

“Prosecutors have long conceded there was no basis for convicting the two men prosecuted for Chea Vichea’s murder, yet the government has persisted in this miscarriage of justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to render a measure of justice for the wrongfully convicted Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun.”

The January 22, 2004 killing of Chea Vichea, leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, came amidst a violent crackdown by the Cambodian government to suppress the country’s independent labor movement. The killing came at a time of political unrest following contested national elections in 2003 when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was seeking to intimidate the political opposition.

Chea Vichea had earlier been wounded during the March 30, 1997 attempted assassination of opposition leader Sam Rainsy and had received numerous death threats for his work as a labor organizer.

After Chea Vichea’s murder in 2004, police arrested Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, but it soon became clear that both were being used as scapegoats. The absence of credible evidence was apparent to the original investigating judge in the case, Hing Thirith, who on March 19, 2004, ordered the release of the two despite allegedly having been instructed by a senior government official to forward the case to trial. Three days later, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, a CPP-dominated body tasked with ensuring judicial independence, removed Hing Thirith from his position.

In August 2005, a Phnom Penh court convicted Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun and sentenced each to 20 years in prison after a trial that international observers regarded as grossly unfair. Human Rights Watch and others have for many years criticized the Cambodian judicial system as being under the control of the ruling CPP.

In April 2007, the Court of Appeals upheld the convictions despite testimony from numerous witnesses supporting the two men’s alibis and the acknowledgement by the prosecutor that there was insufficient evidence. The court’s ruling was widely condemned by domestic civil society organizations and international labor and human rights organizations. In 2008, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Court of Appeals for retrial, and two men were released on bail on January 1, 2009, pending the result of the new proceedings.

The Court of Appeals did not hear the retrial until November 7, 2012, when it held a three-hour hearing. The court appeared to give no substantive consideration to evidence of culpability of government officials in the murder, but instead appeared to credit the coerced “confession” of Born Samnang on which the original judgment was in part based, and which Born Samnang has consistently repudiated in open testimony. On December 27, the Appeal Court announced its final judgment, re-convicting both Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun and sentencing them to 20 years in prison. They were immediately handcuffed and returned to prison.

“Cambodian judicial officials have told Human Rights Watch that the conviction was the result of a high-level political decision, contrary to the facts of the case and applicable law,” Adams said. “The government should put right this unacceptable wrong.”

Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun requested a re-hearing before the Supreme Court, which is allowed under Cambodian law. A judgment may be rendered immediately after a first hearing or at a further hearing on a later date at the discretion of the court.

The September 25 hearing will be held amidst an ongoing national crisis in Cambodia over the July elections in which the CPP claimed victory over the Sam Rainsy-led Cambodian National Rescue Party. The election process was marred by serious irregularities that the CPP-controlled National Election Committee and Constitutional Council have refused to investigate, precipitating mass peaceful demonstrations in which workers have played an important role. The government’s deployment of security forces to prevent and suppress these demonstrations and other post-election unrest has included unnecessary and excessive use of force resulting in death and injury to protesters and bystanders.

“The Cambodian people and the international community are watching and hoping to see justice finally done for Chea Vichea, as well as for Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” Adams said. “This case is a test of whether reforms the CPP has promised in the wake of its poor electoral showing will actually take place, or whether the courts will continue to be a political tool of Prime Minister Hun Sen.”