Friday, January 23, 2009

Tributes flow for union head

Written by Khouth Sophak Chakrya and Sebastian Strangio
Friday, 23 January

Five years after his death, two men convicted of union leader Chea Vichea's killing pay respects at memorial march, calling for fresh investigations.
Photo by: AFP
Nuon Kimsry, mother of newly released suspect Born Samnang, mourns the death of slain unionist Chea Vichea at Thursday's five-year commemoration near Wat Lanka.

HUNDREDS of factory workers and civil society activists gathered Thursday for a commemorative march marking the fifth anniversary of the killing of outspoken trade unionist Chea Vichea - with participation this year from the two men convicted and imprisoned for his murder in 2004.

The event, organised by the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, began at 8am at the headquarters of the Free Trade Union of Workers (FTU) before marching to the site of Chea Vichea's assassination near Wat Lanka, where he was gunned down in 2004 while buying a newspaper.

"We hope the police and investigating judges will make an effort to investigate then arrest the real murderers and their accomplices," said Chea Vichea's brother and FTU President Chea Mony, welcoming the provisional release of suspects Born Samnang, 24, and Sok Sam Oeun, 36, on December 31.

"We have a small amount of justice due to the[ir] temporary release ... but we still have no real justice because the real murderers and their accomplices are living freely," he said.

The two men, released from prison pending retrial after the Supreme Court cited discrepancies in their case, joined civil society leaders in laying wreaths next to a portrait of Chea Vichea and issuing calls for an independent investigation into the labour leader's death.

"I am very happy that I have opportunity to pay my respects to the spirit of Chea Vichea," Born Samnang told reporters.

"I want to tell the people and the international community that I am not a killer. I hope the government will not allow the criminals to continue their activities against the people of our country."

Sok Samouen's father, Von Vann, 65, said the support of civil society and those close to Chea Vichea had helped secure their release.

"My son was released from prison because NGOs and Chea Vichea's family strongly believe he is not the killer. I hope the police and the court will arrest the real murderers soon so my son and Born Samnang will be stripped of their charges," he said.

They are not real murderers. They are plastic murderers set up by the police.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, also present at the march, called on US President Barack Obama to help bring the killers to justice.

"I want a full, serious investigation into this murder," he said.

Although there was a small police presence during the march, Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said in his speech that police had been employed to block traffic and did not engage in the "victimising" tactics of past years.

"From now on, we hope the authorities, including the police and military police, will not use electric batons and their gun-points to ‘protect' peaceful protesters," he said.

Although Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are technically guilty of Chea Vichea's murder - both were convicted of the crime by a Phnom Penh court in 2004 - Chea Mony vouched for their innocence and welcomed their presence at the event.

"We are happy to welcome [their] families to the five-year commemoration of my brother's death," he told the Post.

"They are not the real murderers. They are plastic murderers set up by the police to confuse the eyes of national and international observers."

However, as the Court of Appeal and Ministry of Interior prepare to reopen the investigation, some observers are divided on whether their provisional release - a first for Cambodia's judiciary - can be seen as an indication of growing independence, or a brief diversion from the standard of judicial interference.

US embassy spokesman John Johnson said the US government had hopes it was a step in the right direction.

"We welcome the serious and thorough way the Supreme Court Panel reviewed their cases," he said by email. "We presume [it] will guide the Appeals Court in their further work."

He also expressed hopes the court would "resolve this matter in a way consistent with Cambodian law and international standards of due process".

But others said that the decision could easily be reversed.

"They are on bail, meaning that they could be arrested at any time," said Mu Sochua, deputy secretary general of the Sam Rainsy Party, adding that the prospects of a fair inquiry into the Chea Vichea killing remained slim.

"It's been five years. If the government really wanted to have a truly independent investigation, they would have cooperated with the witnesses. But nevertheless, we have to have hope."

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak would not detail how the forthcoming investigation would proceed, but told the Post that Born Samnang and Sok Samouen had only been released temporarily and were both still accused of Chea Vichea's killing.

"The court has released them on bail but they have not yet completed their work," he said. "We will follow the court's decision."

But Mu Sochua said that the high turnout at the march would send a strong message.
"[This] is a message to the government that the Cambodian people, especially the workers, will continue to demand justice, and that the spirit of the democrats remains strong."


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