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Free for Now, ‘Plastic Killers’ Face Uncertain Futures

Each morning, a thin Born Samnang stands anxiously near a staircase at a crowded market in central Phnom Penh, looking for clients. Now a motorcycle taxi driver, Born Samnang is trying to put five years of turmoil behind him.

Meanwhile, in Takeo province, Sok Samoeun is trying to earn enough money by teaching English to buy a tuk-tuk, which he’ll use to pick up fares in the capital one day.

Both men were released in January after serving five years in prison, widely believed to be scapegoats, or “plastic killers,” for the 2004 murder of a labor leader.

Both are under provisional release, as an Appeals Court considers the guilty verdicts against them, following a Supreme Court order in December 2008. (No further arrests have been made in the murder, and a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior said no investigation will proceed until the court finishes its work.)

“From now on, I am a new person,” Born Samnang said on a recent morning at his market pitch, as he started to sob.

Having now changed his name, he referred to himself in the third person.

“Before, Born Samnang never studied hard and never wanted to be a motodop,” he said.

Now living with his father, who loaned him a motorbike, and his stepmother, the former Born Samnang earns 15,000 riel, about $3.75, per day.

Few recognize him now, he said. His new life as a free man is difficult, he said, especially because the bike is so old, and some customers aren’t willing to hire him.

“Sometimes, I try to beg the clients to go with me, but they refuse,” he said, vowing to keep working until he can find a better career, perhaps as a staff member for an NGO like those who for years advocated for his release.

Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun were arrested not long after the February 2004 shooting of Chea Vichea, a popular leader of the Free Trade Union.

The court initially found them guilty, despite alibis, scant evidence and unreliable witness testimony.

International and local rights groups continuously lobbied for their release, and even the former king, Norodom Sihanouk, said they should be freed.

The Supreme Court eventually ordered the Appeals Court to review their cases, and both were released, having served five years of 20-year sentences.

They are getting by now, free unless they have their verdicts upheld. They are both concentrating on whatever future they can have.

“I really wish to have a three-wheeled moto, for my living and my mother,” Sok Samoeun said.