Cambodia's murder mystery: Who killed Vichea?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Who killed Chea Vichea? Sok Sam Oeun, who was acquitted by the Supreme Court and released from jail last month for the crime, is perplexed when asked the question.

"I did all this prison time, but I don't know who exactly killed him," he said from his family home in Takeo province, where he now lives with his wife and children. "I want to sell construction materials, but I don't know who is going to help me. When you don't have money you can't think of anything."

Little has changed at the newspaper stands where Vichea - the outspoken, captivating and much-adored leader of the Free Trade Union - was gunned down in broad daylight on January 22, 2004. Vendors sit on deck chairs selling stationery and newspapers to students and passers-by from rundown kiosks.

The same can be said for justice in what has become perhaps the most significant unsolved lawsuit in Cambodia's 20 years of democracy. The killers have remained at large ever since shooting Vichea at point-blank range outside Phnom Penh's Wat Lanka pagoda from a Honda motorcycle.

The case was thrust back into the media spotlight last month when the Supreme Court decided to acquit Sam Oeun and Born Samnang for Vichea's murder, due to a lack of evidence. The decision came about after both men had spent five years in jail.

"The authorities should have found the killer. The truth must be somewhere hidden inside. People try to cover it up," said Nop Ly, a vendor who sat down earlier this month on the exact spot where Chea Vichea was gunned down. 

Flashback to the shooting

According to accounts given by the Cambodia Daily newspaper, a gunman dismounted from the back of a motorcycle, walked to one of the kiosks, and pretended to mull over some newspapers before removing a pistol from his trousers. He fired three bullets into Vichea, hitting him in the head, chest and left arm. The gunman then mounted his motorcycle and rode off with his accomplice.

There has been little speculation over why Vichea was murdered. He was a stern critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government and openly expressed support for the country's opposition party. On several occasions he contacted journalists in the country to tell them about the latest death threat he had received via text message.

Yet the chances of finding justice in the case were always going to be slim. Following the attack, then-Deputy Police Chief Heng Pov, a notorious official who is currently serving a 100-year prison sentence for several crimes including the assassination of a judge, announced that the murder case would be solved within a week.

Sticking to that timeframe, Pov paraded Samnang and Sam Oeun in front of the media as the two men responsible for the killing. Once behind closed doors, police allegedly beat Samnang, leading him to confess. 

But Var Sothy, an eyewitness to the killing who spoke to Cambodia Daily, said the pair was not the men she had seen that day on the motorcycle.

There were many more twists and turns in the case of Samnang and Sam Oeun. On March 19, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge, Hing Thirith, dropped the case against the two men, but five days later the judge was removed from his position. On June 1, the Appeal Court overturned Judge Thirith's decision and ordered the two men to be charged with Vichea's murder.

A year and a half after Vichea died, Samnang and Sam Oeun were found guilty of the crime in August 2005 and sentenced to 20 years in jail. The testimony of Sothy was never used as evidence in the case.

But controversy surrounding the court's decision was far from over. Human rights groups began a dedicated campaign to have the pair released. And on August 17, 2006, Heng Pov - who had fled Cambodia to seek political asylum in several countries, claiming that he knew the truth about the Vichea case - gave an interview to France's weekly magazine L'Express.

In that interview, Heng Pov said Samnang and Sam Oeun did not kill Vichea, claiming that he had been pressured by the late National Police chief, Hok Lundy, into framing the pair.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Appeals Court in 2008 for re-investigation due to lack of evidence, but the men were again sentenced in December 2012 and remained in jail until their release last month.

Although Samnang and Sam Oeun are now free, Vichea's killers are still at large. Observers of the case say impunity remains prevalent within Cambodia's justice system.

Culture of impunity

"A serious investigation is needed to find the true perpetrators. There should be some evidence. I believe the government and the competent authorities have it at hand and need to make way for further investigation," said Chundy Huon, a programme manager for the Community Legal Education Center, which provides legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses.

"Many believe it's politically motivated and strongly connected to those in power. Chea Vichea was an outstanding figure among the union leaders and active in leading the labour movements at that time. He also used to advise his members to vote for the opposition," Huon added.

"The government should compensate them [Sam Oeun and Samnang] for their imprisonment without guilt, although there is no clear law saying about that. This will show the public that national institutions are accountable to the innocent people," he said, adding that police had also failed to find justice in the murder cases of Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy, both members of the Free Trade Union who were gunned down in 2004 and 2007, respectively.

The perpetrators of these murders "have been at large and the investigations have revealed nothing in the previous mandates of the current government", Huon said.

Though officials at the Municipal and Supreme Court could not be reached, Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said police had not received any order from the court to reopen an investigation into the murder case.

"At the moment we haven't received an instruction from the court to the police to reopen an investigation into the case," Sopheak said. "It totally depends on the court."

For Samnang and Sam Oeun, their release means re-acquainting themselves with family life and trying to make ends meet - especially because the court has paid no compensation to the two men for the many years they spent behind bars.

Unlike Sam Oeun, Samnang has managed to find a job as a driver for an international school in Phnom Penh. He earns $100 per month, just enough to keep his head above water.

"I am very depressed, because I did not do anything wrong," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I hope to have good health and a high standard of living now, but who is going to help me?"

"I don't know who killed him," Samnang declared. "Of course another investigation into the case should be opened, but right now I would just like to thank the court for releasing me from prison."

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