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Documentary Probes Chea Vichea’s Murder

Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun have each tearfully denied involvement in the murder for which they are blamed at every trial they’ve attended.

Facing 20-year prison sentences for the alleged killing of Chea Vichea, both are widely considered innocent, and in January, the Supreme Court ordered them released and has asked the Appeals Court to reexamine their case. But if it wasn’t them, then who was responsible for the death of the popular labor leader?

The question is asked but never answered in “Who Killed Chea Vichea?,” a new documentary from filmmaker Bradley Cox, screened in Rhode Island last week.

Cox’s first film, “The Plastic Killers,” examined the court case against Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun, and his new film investigates the murder beyond the suspects and puts more emphasis on the victim.

“I go into a lot of detail about the case of Chea Vichea and the death and the murder of Chea Vichea, but I also expand on the theme of the movie, to use it as an example of some of these problems [of corruption and impunity] that continue to plague Cambodia,” Cox said in an interview with VOA Khmer last week.

Rights groups have welcomed the film, claiming it sheds light on the innocence of the two men and the shortage of independence within the court system.

“Evidence in the video will show better that neither of the accused were Chea Vichea’s killers in 2004,” Om Samath, a rights investigator for Licadho who has been following the case, told VOA Khmer last week. “This is a good thing that will push the Appeals Court to seriously look into the case and hopefully be able to bring the real killer for prosecution and give justice to the victims.”

Chea Vichea, a former president of the Free Trade Union of Workers in the Kingdom of Cambodia, held wide influence over garment factory workers and was able to rally them in mass gatherings. He was gunned down in an assassination-style on the morning of Jan. 22, 2004, while reading a newspaper with friends at a newsstand near Wat Lanka.

Not long after, police arrested Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun. Both the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and the Appeals Court sentenced them to 20 years in prison.

“I am only telling the truth,” Sok Samoeun told VOA Khmer last week. “Once they charged me, I knew nothing of the killing. I didn’t know about the killing or who died. I knew nothing.”

Both men have been summoned to the Appeals Court later this month.

Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the two are out on bail and no decision has been made in their case. He was surprised to learn the film had been released.

“Which one is the ‘Who’?” he asked, in reference to the title of the film. “Who did the film accuse?”

The film does not accuse anyone of the crime, but seeks to demonstrate that the two men accused of it could not have done it.

“What I’ve done is show conclusively who didn’t kill Chea Vichea,” Cox said. “It wasn’t Born Samnang and Sok Sameoun. I think any reasonable person can make their own conclusion. I don’t make a hard and fast conclusion as to who pulled the trigger. Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever know who really shot Chea Vichea on that day.”

The defendants, he said, do not have to prove in court who did the crime, he added, “just prove they didn’t do the killing themselves.”

Finding the killer, “that’s supposed to be the police’s job,” he said. And the more important question remains, knowing who was behind the decision to have Chea Vichea killed.

“Who Killed Chea Vichea?” includes interviews with police officers, judges, senior politicians in the ruling and opposition parties and rights and civic groups. It was filmed mainly in Cambodia, with other scenes in France, Holland, Thailand, Belgium and the US.

It will be shown on television in the US, as well as in Europe and Asia, but the filmmakers are not sure whether it will appear in Cambodia.

The recent screening, a little more than a week ahead of the Aug. 17 court day for Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun, was a coincidence, Cox said, and was unlikely to influence the court.

If the judge evaluates the case on its merits, “he would have to release Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun, because they are innocent,” Cox said. If there is political pressure, the two may not be released.

“Either way I don’t think my movie will have an effect on the judge,” he said.

Meanwhile, the biggest question remains unanswered.

“Chea Vichea’s killer is still far away,” said his brother, Chea Mony, who now heads the Free Trade Union. “We still don’t have a clue. We are still waiting for justice, and we have received not a single piece out of million.”

More information on the film, including a preview, can be found at