Thursday, January 22, 2009

Court to probe union slaying

Written by Chrann Chamroeun and Sebastian Strangio
Thursday, 22 January 2009

On fifth anniversary of Chea Vichea's killing, those close to slain unionist are calling on government to ensure independence of new investigation.
Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Suspect Born Samnang offers thanks upon his release from prison on December 31.

FIVE years after the murder of trade unionist Chea Vichea - and three weeks since the release of the two men imprisoned for the crime - Phnom Penh's Court of Appeal is set to reopen investigations into the circumstances surrounding the killing.

But in the run-up to a commemorative march scheduled for early this morning, court monitors and others close to the slain union leader called on the government to ensure a fair and open investigation into his death.

On December 31, the Supreme Court ordered the provisional release of previously convicted suspects Born Samnang, 24, and Sok Sam Oeun, 36, citing contradictory evidence in their previous trials and turning over the case to the Appeal Court and Ministry of Interior for further investigations.

Although court monitors praised the release of the two men as possible evidence of a flowering of independence in the Kingdom's notoriously corrupt judiciary, Chea Vichea's brother Chea Mony told the Post that there was no guarantee the investigation will be seen through to a just conclusion.

"It was very mysterious that the Supreme Court released the two innocent men on bail temporarily and turned the case over to the Court of Appeal," he said.

"It isn't yet known how the process of the investigation will be organised."
Minister of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Sok Sam Oeun's defence lawyer Hong Kim
Suon said he expected investigations to begin in the coming weeks.

"The case documents are now being prepared to be filed to the Court of Appeal to conduct an investigation which, according to judicial procedure, takes at least a month," he said. "I don't know whether the case is now in the hands of the Court of Appeal."

Five years on
To mark the fifth anniversary of Chea Vichea's killing, the Cambodian Confederation of Unions organised a commemorative parade that was to march this morning from the union headquarters in Boeung Keng Kang 3 to the site near Wat Lanka where Chea Vichea was gunned down in 2004.

Chea Mony said that the event, in addition to marking his brother's life and work, was a plea for "an independent court to conduct a reinvestigation into the killing with numerous witnesses of whom former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov is [among] the [most] important".

It isn't yet known how the process of the investigation will be organised.

Freed suspect Sok Sam Oeun said he and his father would be attending the ceremony, requesting that the government "hunt for the real killers so they can be punished thereby ending the charges against me".

"I don't feel any concerns or worry for my safety since I am innocent," he added.

However, some observers are more pessimistic about the possibility of an independent investigation into the trade unionist's murder.

On Tuesday, the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party - now operating under the banner of the Democratic Movement for Change - issued a joint statement saying that the release of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun was an admission [by the government] of their innocence and that a fair investigation was unlikely to ensue.

"The release on bail of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun ... further demonstrates that the government of Cambodia is certain of their innocence but refuses to stop its travesty of justice," the statement said.

Human Rights Watch's Sarah Colm was similarly sceptical, telling the Post on December 31 that "one case doesn't make or break a long pattern of deeply entrenched impunity".

But Ham Sunrith, deputy director of monitoring and protection at local rights group Licadho, was more optimistic, saying that the authority of the Supreme Court could force the investigation ahead.

"The Court of Appeal was appointed by the Supreme Court to find more witnesses and more evidence in this case," he said, adding that the court had already set a good precedent by releasing the two suspects on bail - something that is mandated by the Criminal Code, though rarely observed.

"This is a good model for other courts," he said.

"The Supreme Court is a high court and it has [already] set a good precedent that suspects be released pending investigations."


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