PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC - Two men widely seen as innocent in the 2004 killing of a Cambodian labor leader have been released, following a case that saw them jailed for years.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun walked out of prison on Thursday, following a Supreme Court order on Wednesday.
Both men were serving 20-year prison sentences for the killing of labor leader Chea Vichea, but their conviction was widely criticized for a lack of evidence.
They smiled as they left Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, where outside they were greeted by family members and supporters.
“Although my release is very late, it was a good day when the Supreme Court dropped the charges against me,” Born Samnang said. Sok Sam Ouen said he had been waiting 10 years for “real justice.”
Lawyers for both men say they retained the right to sue the court for wrongful imprisonment.
Wednesday’s decision was “a warning message to authorities who don’t fully investigate,” Chum Sovannaly, a lawyer for Born Samnang, told VOA Khmer. “And second, it is a warning message to lower courts, like the provincial courts and the Appeals court.”
The UN human rights office and the International Labor Organization welcomed the court’s decision.
“After more than nine years of proceedings before the Cambodian courts, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun have been finally cleared of all wrongdoings in this case,” the two agencies said in a joint statement. “The Supreme Court recognized the lack of sufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the two men and also identified a number of deficiencies in the way the police handled the case. Importantly, the Supreme Court emphasized that the confession forcibly extracted from Born Samnang by the police could not be invoked as evidence in court.”
But rights workers say the true killers of Chea Vichea, a popular labor leader who led massive demonstrations to demand better conditions for factory workers, remain at large.
Chan Soveth, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, told VOA Khmer that the release was a good “first step” for judicial reform under the new government.
“But we are still skeptical about the perpetrators who gunned down Chea Vichea,” he said. “Who are they?”