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In early 2006, members of the Cambodia sub-group started to look for new areas in which we could work. We decided it would be good to concentrate our efforts on a region that was not in the human rights violations spotlight like Iran and Guantanamo, but somewhere where not so many groups were active. After doing some research we found out that the human rights situation in Cambodia was in danger of deteriorating and our Cambodian sub-group was born.
We contacted the German Section Cambodian Coordination Group and the Cambodian Coordinators at the International Secretariat in London and soon we were presented with the case of the murdered trade unions leader Chea Vichea and the accused prisoners Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun.
June 2013 Update
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment on 1 August 2005 for the murder of prominent trade unionist Chea Vichea on 22 January 2004. The criminal investigation was deeply flawed and the trial did not meet international standards for fairness. Both men had strong alibis at the time of the murder and the prosecution presented no direct evidence, apart from a confession extracted from one of the defendants under duress. Amnesty International believes that the true perpetrators of the murder of Chea Vichea have not been held to account and that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are unjustly imprisoned.
On 1 August 2005 the Phnom Penh Court convicted the two men of murdering prominent and respected trade unionist Chea Vichea on 22 January 2004, despite no evidence linking them to the murder. 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 a lack of any new evidence being presented. They have appealed this latest decision.
Chea Vichea, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers in Cambodia, was shot dead at point blank range while reading at a news stand in central Phnom Penh in 2004. Eye witnesses reported that the unmasked killer fled the scene on a motorbike driven by an accomplice.cAt the time of his death Chea Vichea, 36, was a well-known and respected trade union leader who championed workers' rights in Cambodia's burgeoning garment industry. He was also a founding member of the main opposition Khmer Nation Party (KNP) in 1995, subsequently renamed the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in 1998. Chea Vichea was elected President of the Free Trade Union of Workers, one of Cambodia's largest trade unions, in 1999, when he resigned from official positions within the SRP. He successfully stood for re-election twice and served as the president for five years. He dedicated his presidency to advocating for workers' rights, such as wage increases, reduced working hours, and protection for workers' representatives. His murder led to unprecedented domestic and international outrage, and the authorities were under pressure to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
Flawed investigation and unfair trial
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested on 27 and 28 January 2004, following which Phnom Penh's police chief declared "We have found the killers who directly committed the killing of Chea Vichea", in direct contradiction of the presumption of innocence. When they were paraded by police in front of the media, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun declared their innocence and said they were being made scapegoats. Investigations by human rights groups and journalists showed both suspects had strong alibis for the time around the shooting. Born Samnang claimed that the police beat and threatened him to extract a confession - the principal evidence on which the pair were then convicted.
The criminal investigation was marred by irregularities: instead of probing into the murder police officers focused on threatening and rounding up those who provided alibis for the suspects, while witnesses were intimidated. On 19 March 2004, Judge Heng Thirith decided to dismiss the case for lack of evidence against the suspects, admitting that he had been subject to political pressure and that Born Samnang's confession was "irregular". The Judge's decision was immediately appealed by the prosecutor. Within days, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, mandated to take disciplinary actions against judges and prosecutors, had Heng Thirith removed from the position of Investigation Judge at the Phnom Penh Court.
The case was again heard at the Appeals Court on 1 July 2004, and the new judge reversed Heng Thirith's ruling and returned the case to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for further investigation. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were held in pre-trial detention until their trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on 1 August 2005, a detention period exceeding by a full year the legal six-month maximum under Cambodian law.
The 1 August 2005 trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court did not meet fundamental principles of international fair trial standards, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to cross-examine witnesses and challenge evidence, and impartiality of the judiciary. Furthermore according to international human rights law, Cambodia's Constitution and its criminal law, confessions obtained under duress are not admissible as evidence in court, and under Cambodian criminal law confessions cannot be used to convict persons unless they are corroborated by other evidence. No such evidence was presented in support of Born Samnang's initial confession which was the central evidence against both him and Sok Sam Oeun.
Both men were found guilty, sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment and ordered to pay 5000 USD to the victim's family. The brother of Chea Vichea refused to accept the compensation, saying: "I was at the court hearings, and there was no evidence against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. I would not want to accept any money; they were not the real killers." Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun appealed against the verdict, however the hearing by the Court of Appeal was not scheduled until 6 October 2006, more than one year later.
On 10 August 2006 a key witness to the murder of Chea Vichea, who is now a refugee resettled in a third country, came forward with a compelling testimony which had previously been withheld for fear of retaliation. In the statement, which was submitted to the Court of Appeal, the witness categorically states that the two men were not present at the murder scene. On 16 August 2006 Phnom Penh's former Chief of Police, who led the investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea, admitted in an interview in self-imposed exile that at the time of the arrests he had understood the two men "had nothing to do with the murder".
The conviction and imprisonment of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for the killing of Chea Vichea has met with widespread condemnation and scepticism, including from the then Special Representative of the Secretary General for Human Rights in Cambodia, the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, domestic and international human rights organizations, including the international trade union movement.
Impact on Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun’s families
Both Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun come from poor families, who have faced hardships since the two men were imprisoned. Born Samnang's mother has had to sell off half of her small home in order to pay for food for Born Samnang and to gain access to him in prison, and struggles to make a living without his support. Sok Sam Oeun's family live in Takeo province, farming rice. A visit to Phnom Penh to see Sok Sam Oeun is expensive and they too had been buying food for him monthly and paying guards to get access. They struggle to do this every month.
More information on our activities to seek justice for Chea Vichea.