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Four years on, no justice in killing of Chea Vichea

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International human rights activists and unionists are calling for the release of two men imprisoned for the murder of Cambodia’s prominent union leader Chea Vichea, four years after his death. Activists claimed that the conviction of the two was tainted with allegations of torture, forced confessions, police brutality and political interference in the judiciary.

(Bangkok) Six international human rights organisations and the world’s largest trade union have criticised the Cambodian government for the continued detention of two men for the murder of prominent union leader, Chea Vichea.

The two, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeum, are currently serving a 20-year prison sentence after their initial arrest on 28 January 2004 for the murder of Chea who was president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC). He was killed on January 22.

The organisations were “gravely concerned” as police investigations of the two had been marred by numerous irregularities, including torture and forced confession from Born Samnang. Although charges were dropped against them for lack of evidence, it was later reinstated after the presiding judge was removed, indicating political interference. Last April, the country's Appeal Court upheld their convictions despite insufficient evidence, which was duly acknowledged by the prosecutor.

In their joint statement, Sara Colm, senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the case has been tainted by serious procedural flaws and violations of basic fair trial rights from the beginning. She called for the “prompt release of those unfairly convicted”.

The other organisations that endorsed the statement include Amnesty International, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, which is a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture.

Souhayr Belhassen, president of the Paris-based FIDH, said that “there is compelling evidence that these two men were targeted by the authorities as scapegoats for the murder, and nobody is fooled by this charade”.

Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based AHRC, added, “Any objective examination of all the available evidence shows that these two men never should have been arrested, much less imprisoned for four years already”.

The organisations also called for an independent and public inquiry into the handling of their prosecution, which include investigation into allegations of police brutality and intimidation of witnesses and political interference in the judicial process. Similar concerns were raised by the International Labor Organization and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia.

This case highlights the use of torture by Cambodian police, mainly to force confessions out of criminal suspects, and the courts’ readiness to turn a blind eye. The Cambodian government and courts should take meaningful action to prevent and punish the use of torture,” said Eric Sottas, director of the World Organization against Torture based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Brittis Edman, Southeast Asia researcher for London-based Amnesty International said, “Four years after the murder of Chea Vichea, the true perpetrators remain at large while two innocent men are imprisoned. This deep injustice shows the sorry state of rule of law in Cambodia and the urgent need for genuine legal and judicial reform”.

Anselmo Lee, executive director of FORUM-ASIA, stressed that “Cambodia's donors who are pumping millions of dollars in aid to the country, and particularly those supporting the government's so-called reform programs, need to be demanding real progress — not mere lip service — toward improving the judiciary's independence and professionalism”.

Meanwhile, the murder of Chea Vichea reflected a clear and ongoing pattern of violence against trade union activists in Cambodia. The murders of FTUWKC official Hy Vuthy in February 2007 and Steering Committee member Ros Sovannarith in 2004 are among a series of physical assaults against other unionists.

Guy Ryder of the Brussels-based ITUC, whose 311 affiliates represent 168 million workers worldwide, said that the murders has had a chilling effect on labour rights and workers' freedoms in Cambodia, even more so given the lack of proper, credible investigations to find their killers. “It sends a deplorable message to Cambodian workers that trade union membership or activity will put their safety at risk,” he added.

For more information, please contact:
In Hong Kong, Basil Fernando (Asian Human Rights Commission) +85-2698-6339;
In Bangkok, Em Gil (FORUM-ASIA) +66-84-092-3575; or
In Phnom Penh, Sara Colm (Human Rights Watch) +855-12-804-755.