Cambodia: Release scapegoats for killing of trade union leader

Two men wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the killing of prominent trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 should be released immediately, Amnesty International said today, on International Labour Day.

Following an unfair trial, Born Samnang, 32, and Sok Sam Oeun, 45, were sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2005 after being convicted for the murder a year earlier of Chea Vichea, the president of Cambodia’s Free Trade Union (FTU).

After a campaign by human rights groups, the Supreme Court released the two men on bail on 31 December 2008 and ordered a retrial. But on 27 December 2012, four years after their provisional release, the Appeals Court upheld the original verdict and sent the pair back to prison, despite any new evidence being presented. They have appealed this latest decision.

“Considering the seriously flawed criminal investigation, grossly unfair trial and lack of evidence, these two men should never have been convicted in the first place,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam.

“Cambodian authorities should ensure that these two men are immediately and unconditionally released once and for all – they must be allowed to try to rebuild their lives.”

Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were originally arrested in January 2004, on suspicion of killing Chea Vichea.

Chea Vichea had been shot dead at a newspaper stand in the centre of the capital Phnom Penh earlier that month, following a series of death threats against him. 

Police officers threatened and detained those providing alibis for the two suspects, and intimidated other witnesses. Born Samnang said that police beat and coerced him into making a confession – the principal evidence on which the pair were then convicted.

An investigating judge – who initially dropped the case citing a lack of evidence – was removed from his position and saw his decision overturned.

Cambodia’s late King Norodom Sihanouk had called the pair scapegoats, while former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov – now in prison himself – said that the two were innocent.

“The investigation, trial and appeals have been riddled with serious flaws that violate the fair trial rights protected in Cambodia’s Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Cambodia is a state party,” said Abbott. 

“Amnesty International calls again on the Cambodian authorities to initiate a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the conduct of the case – including allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by police, intimidation of witnesses and political interference with the judicial process.”

While Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun languish in prison, Chea Vichea’s real killers have never been brought to justice. 

Chea Vichea had led the FTU since 1999 and was a leading advocate for workers’ rights in the country’s burgeoning garments industry.

He was a founding member of the opposition Khmer National Party, renamed the Sam Rainsy Party in 1998. While taking part in a demonstration calling for judicial reform in 1997, he was injured along with more than 100 others in a grenade attack that killed 16. 

No one has ever been held accountable for that attack. 

A film about Chea Vichea’s January 2004 murder – Who Killed Chea Vichea? – is banned in Cambodia, and the authorities have disrupted attempts to screen it. 

Since his death, another two FTU activists have been killed in Phnom Penh and numerous other trade union members have been victims of harassment, intimidation and violence. 

“Amnesty International demands again that the Cambodian authorities conduct an impartial and effective investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Abbott. 

“Along with the release of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, this would also help restore some faith in Cambodia’s justice system, a goal for which Chea Vichea himself had campaigned.”

Further information

“Cambodia: Release Scapegoats for Labor Leader’s Murder”, Amnesty International Public Statement, 22 January 2008.

“Cambodia: The murder of trade unionist Chea Vichea: Still No Justice”, Amnesty International Public Statement, 30 July 2006