2 Scapegoats sentenced to 20 years prison

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

PHNOM PENH  –  Cambodian rights campaigners on Thursday condemned the sentencing of two men to 20 years in prison for the 2004 murder of a prominent labour leader, saying they appeared to be scapegoats.

Chea Vichea, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, was gunned down in broad daylight at a newsstand in the capital Phnom Penh – a killing decried by activists as an attempt to silence his labour union.

Days later, Born Samnang, now 32, and Sok Sam Oeun, 43, were arrested and jailed for 20 years each in a verdict which rights watchdogs said was based on insufficient evidence.

In 2008 the Supreme Court provisionally released the pair and ordered a retrial. But the Appeal Court on Thursday ruled that there was enough proof of their guilt and confirmed the 20-year sentences.

Am Sam Ath, of local rights groups Licadho, said the pair appeared to be innocent victims. “Civil groups still consider the two men as the artificial killers,” he told reporters.

The pair shouted “Unjust!” and called for help from the king and Hun Sen as they were led from the court in handcuffs and taken to prison.

“Let me go. I am not the killer,” said Born Samnang.

Sok Sam Oeun’s wife, Neang Heng, told reporters her husband had been “full of hope” that he would be acquitted.

The pair’s lawyers immediately appealed the ruling, which rights activists said once again failed to deliver justice.

“I am very shocked and disappointed at the lack of independence of the court and at the inability of the court to provide justice in the case,” the president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Ou Virak, told AFP.

Police alleged at the time that the two men were promised US$5,000 (S$6,110) to carry out the killing. The pair have denied any involvement and said they were framed by a group of police.

Former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov, who led the investigation but was himself later jailed on various charges he contended were politically motivated, has also said the two did not kill Chea Vichea.

The late activist founded the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia along with opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and organised many protests fighting for the rights of garment workers.

Rights groups say Cambodia’s legal system is in thrall to powerful and wealthy interests, leaving the country without the rule of law.

In a separate case Thursday, outspoken female land rights activist Yorm Bopha was jailed for three years for allegedly taking part in beating two men.

Campaigners say the charges were trumped up to silence her activism.

Forced evictions across the country have displaced thousands of families and prompted protests and violent clashes between residents and armed security forces.