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 Cambodiaâ€™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 menâ€™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 peopleâ€™s confidence in the judiciary than the ECCCâ€™s hearings into their painful and bloody history.
Five years after Chea Vicheaâ€™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 â€˜do the right thingâ€™ and show that the Supreme Court decision was not simply an anomaly made only after years of campaign and pressure.