In a surprise turn, the Appeals Court on Thursday sentenced two men widely believed innocent in the 2004 shooting of a labor activist to return to prison.
The two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were released from prison in 2009 by the Supreme Court, which ordered the Appeals Court to rehear the case. They had been living freely since then, but they were taken before the court Thursday and to jail following the decision, each facing 20-year terms.
The court’s decision set off a new round of outrage from local and international rights groups and others in the international community.
Filmmaker Brad Cox, who produced a documentary on the murder case called “Who Killed Chea Vichea,” called the decision “an absolute disgrace” in a Facebook post on Thursday.
“The incarceration of activist Mom Sonando, the killing of environmentalist Chut Wutty, the re-imprisonment of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun… When will our diplomats pull their thumbs out of their [expletive] and do their jobs?” he wrote. “They call themselves champions of human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law and yet they consistently look the other way when they’re needed most. Shame on the Cambodian government for this travesty of justice and shame on us for allowing it to happen over and over and over again.”
The police and judiciary have been widely condemned for prosecuting the men for killing popular labor activist Chea Vichea. The men were found guilty despite a paucity of evidence and contrary to the testimony of key witnesses, in what many believe was a set up for the murder of a popular activist.
“Civil society still considers these two men as plastic killers,” Am Sam Ath, a leading investigator for the rights group Licadho, said Thursday, using the Cambodian idiom for scapegoat.
Not only was the ruling unfair for the two men, but “this is injustice for Chea Vichea.” He said. “His family still cannot find the real killers.”
Lawyers said they would immediately appeal the decision, which was made by the court judge despite favorable concluding remarks from the court prosecutor.
“The prosecutor general said there is not sufficient evidence to lay any charges, but the judge gave a different decision,” Chum Sovannaly, the defense attorney for Born Samnang, told reporters outside the court on Thursday. “Based on the prosecutor’s concluding statement, [my client] should be free.”
The men, who were re-arrested after Thursday’s decision, had a brief chance to remark to reporters before they were carried away.
Sok Sam Oeun called the decision “real injustice.” And Born Samnang made a plea to the ghost of the former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who when he was alive appealed for their release.
“King Father always said that Born Samnang was innocent,” he said, “but now, Your Majesty, they are bringing me back to prison.”