Cambodian court orders release of pair jailed for killing activist

Pair spent over five years in prison for murder of leading labour activist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 3:16am


Cambodia's Supreme Court ordered the release of two men yesterday who were wrongly convicted and jailed for the 2004 murder of an opposition activist.

The court's decision to drop all charges came amid renewed calls to free the men, whom leading international rights groups have called scapegoats in the murder of Chea Vichea and one of many examples of the country's corrupt judicial system.

"We are very happy with this result, but this should not be the end," Cambodia's leading human rights groups said in a joint statement. "It should be the opportunity to properly look into one of the most tragic deaths in Cambodia's recent history."

Chea Vichea was the leader of Cambodia's largest labour union, the Free Trade Union of Workers, and an outspoken critic of government corruption and human rights abuses.

He was gunned down in broad daylight on January 22, 2004 at a roadside newsstand in Phnom Penh after having received numerous death threats for his work as a labour organiser.

Within a week, two men - Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun - were arrested. The investigation that followed sparked a local and international outcry, as did the trial. None of the prosecution witnesses appeared, providing only written testimonies that could not be challenged in court.

In 2005, the men were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, which was just the start of a roller coaster-like legal battle that lasted nearly a decade.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ordered a new investigation and retrial and the two men were released on bail from 2009-2012, but promptly jailed again when the Appeals Court upheld the original verdict.

In total, they spent more than five years in prison.

The men had requested a re-hearing before the Supreme Court, which occurred yesterday. The judges cited a lack of credible evidence as the reason for dropping the charges, the rights groups said.

Earlier this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling for the Cambodian government to drop its case against the two men, saying it was "clear that both were being used as scapegoats".

"Prosecutors have long conceded there was no basis for convicting the two men ... yet the government has persisted in this miscarriage of justice," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.

Human Rights Watch called the case a test of whether the ruling party's promised reforms "will actually take place, or whether the courts will continue to be a political tool of Prime Minister Hun Sen".