5 years on and Chea Vichea’s murder continues to highlight the lack of justice in Cambodia

On 22nd January 2004 the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) was assassinated in broad daylight whilst reading a newspaper at a busy street kiosk in Phnom Penh. Chea Vichea had been an outspoken critic of the government and was at the time the best known union activist in Cambodia’s large garment sector. Shortly before his death he had received death threats and had requested police protection which had been denied to him.

Following his murder two men were arrested. Borng Samnang initially admitted to the killing but later retracted his confession claiming it was made under duress; Sok Sam Oeun denied his involvement. Almost immediately doubts began to emerge that they were in any way involved; both had strong alibis, with many witnesses stating that they could not have been the killers. Despite concerns about the evidence, and flawed prosecution, both men were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Both the criminal investigation and the trial were condemned by the then Special Representative of the United Nations’ Secretary General for Human Rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, as lacking any credibility. International and local human rights organizations were united in highlighting the fact that the detention and trial of the two men were plagued with human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment. The police had failed to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation and deeply flawed court proceedings relied on unfounded and inadmissible evidence. Despite all this, and a growing campaign to free the men, the Appeal Court upheld the conviction on 6 April 2007, even after the prosecutor acknowledged that there was insufficient evidence. Indeed, the appeal hearing was criticised by the international community as being politically-motivated and failing to take into account new evidence.

The campaign against the men’s convictions continued both nationally and internationally and good news finally arrived for Borng Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun at the end of 2008 when, after 1799 days in prison they were released on bail by the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal has been ordered to reinvestigate the case. Cleary, a retrial of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun by the Appeal Court presents an opportunity for the Cambodian judiciary to show a clear commitment to international standards of fair legal proceedings and independence from the government. It will come at a time when International attention is focused on the upcoming Khmer Rouge trials. However, a just and fair decision by the Court of appeal in Chea Vichea case may do more for the Cambodian people’s confidence in the judiciary than the ECCC’s hearings into their painful and bloody history.

Five years after Chea Vichea’s murder the Court of Appeal has an opportunity to right one of the most serious miscarriages of justice perpetrated in Cambodia in recent years as well as to conduct an effective reinvestigation into the killing that could present evidence that will finally bring those really responsible for his death to justice. If they can do this, then ordinary people may start to have a little faith in their justice system. For the moment, most rights groups are happy to see the men free but remain cautious as whether the Court of Appeal can ultimately ‘do the right thing’ and show that the Supreme Court decision was not simply an anomaly made only after years of campaign and pressure.

“Conflict in Gaza: the International Legal Framework” – Roundtable Discussion

On 22nd January 2009 the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights will host a Roundtable Discussion with Dr Siobhán Wills and Dr Siobhán Mullally, Faculty of Law, UCC, on “Conflict in Gaza: the International Legal Framework”

The discussion will take place from 4.00 – 5.00 pm in Áras na Laoi, Room 10.

1 CPD Group Study point available

Khmer Rouge trial date announced

The first trial of a Khmer Rouge leader is due to start 17th February 2009. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch is facing charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was in charge of the infamous Toul Sleng prison where detainees were tortured and killed and is the first of five detainees to be sent for trial.

It is reported by officials that Duch, who has been detained since 1999 and has previously admitted his guilt, has been cooperating with prosecutors and is willing to testify in court. The testimony may well reveal significant information about how the Khmer Rouge leadership made their decisions during their time in power.

For the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), this will be first real move towards prosecuting Khmer Rouge leadership. Whilst the trial may finally draw some attention away from corruption scandals and delays that have dogged the Court it is likely that the trial process will face further delays as the court takes it first steps towards its real work.

The hearing in February will simply examine the lists of witnesses and rule the important question of the extent to which “civil parties” can participate in the trial. The question of how far the victims of the Khmer Rouge will be able to have their voices heard in this and future trials is important and still to be fully resolved. In a decision in March last year the pre-trial chamber of the ECCC ruled that victims should be allowed to participate in court proceedings. However, in subsequent rulings the ECCC appeared to limit the right finding that civil parties could not speak in person in pre-trial appeals.

The ECCC has now launched a media campaign to encourage victims to participate in the upcoming proceedings. Thus civil parties have been given until the 2nd February to come forward. So far 28 people have been officially recognised as civil parties and 70 are being processed.

The trial of Duch is scheduled to begin in March. It is thought that the trials of the other four detainees will not start before 2010.

CCJHR Seminar: Máiréad Enright – “Legal Pluralism and Muslim Family Law in Britain: Williams, Straw and the Sharia Councils”

On 15th January 2009 the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights will host a research Seminar by Máiréad Enright BL, EJ Phelan Fellow in International Law, UCC entitled “Legal Pluralism and Muslim Family Law in Britain: Williams, Straw and the Sharia Councils”.

The seminar will take place from 4 – 5.15 pm in ORB 255 (O’Rahilly Building 255), UCC, Cork.

Máiréad Enright is the EJ Phelan fellow in International Law at UCC, Faculty of Law. She previously lectured at Manchester Metropolitan University. Mairead holds a BCL from University College Cork and an MA from King’s College London. She was called to the Irish Bar in 2006. Mairead’s doctoral thesis, on the position of the nikahnama in secular legal systems, is part of a three year IRCHSS funded project on Gender, Multiculturalism and Human Rights. Her work on forced marriage regulation in the UK has recently been published in the Modern Law Review. Mairead was awarded a visiting fellowship to the Feminism and Legal Theory Project at Emory Law School, Atlanta in Spring, 2009 and a visiting fellowship to Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto in Summer, 2009.