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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Justice in Cambodia: will an exact copy of the Chea Vichea case end with the same outcome?

On December 31st 2008, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were released – on bail for now – after spending almost five years behind bars for the murder of Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), at the end of a process marred by irregularities. The case of Thach Saveth, who was arrested for the killing of another member of the FTUWKC steering committee, Ros Sovannareth, presents striking similarities with that of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. He appeared on Wednesday February 11th before the Court of Appeal, who will only issue its verdict on February 18th. Once again, civil society calls for the case to be dismissed and denounces the inconsistency of the evidence against the 27-year-old paratrooper.

A long and dubious process
Some trade unionists and activists from human rights organisations are present in the courtroom to support Chan Sopheak, better known under his military name, Thach Saveth. Arrested on July 24th 2004, he was sentenced on February 15th 2005 to 15 years of prison for “premeditated murder” and has since been locked in a jail in the province of Kampong Cham. The victim, Ros Sovannareth, had been shot with four bullets by two unidentified men on a motorbike on May 7th 2004, in Phnom Penh.

In his confessions to the police, the former member of the 911 unit of the paratrooper brigade claimed that on May 7th, he was leaving Anlong Veng to travel to the province of Kampong Speu, where he was to attend the wedding of one of his relatives. On the evening of the crime, he was making a stop in Siem Reap, according to his statement. Before the judge of the Court of Appeal, Thach Saveth's memory was now blurry. “This all goes back a long time ago. He has forgotten,” his lawyers argued.

This is the second time that this case has come before the Court of Appeal. The first time, on December 27th 2007, the Court had confirmed the ruling of the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh. However, Thach Saveth had then been sentenced in absentia – the Court had claimed that he was detained too far from Phnom Penh for him to attend – which he had challenged by requesting the Court of Appeal to review his case again. Before that, the Municipal Court had held a summary trial – nearly one hour only, which is slightly less than Wednesday's hearing before the Court of Appeal. The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia had then described the trial as “characterized by breaches of procedural rules and the absence of the most basic standards of fair trial” “Continuing patterns of impunity in Cambodia ”. “The trial judge placed the burden on the accused to prove that he was not in Phnom Penh at the time of the incident and dismissed the testimony of the three witnesses that supported his alibi.”

Common points with the Chea Vichea case
In a soft voice, the defendant repeated to the judge on Wednesday what he has been saying since he was arrested, “I have never committed any offence. I did not even know the victim! And as a paratrooper, I did not have the right to carry a weapon.” Thach Saveth talked about his arrest, which hardly followed the rules as it was carried out “without any arrest warrant”, as reminded by the local human rights NGO Licadho. “The police detained me without explaining why to me. They threatened to kill me to force me to acknowledge I was guilty, but I did not give in. Afterwards, at the Municipal Court, I was shown the pictures of four men and asked if I knew them. I recognised my own portrait of course – they had taken that photograph during my arrest. But the other faces, I had never seen them in my life!” He was reportedly arrested for being a drug addict, by the same Tuol Kork district police who arrested Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. Officers who have since been removed...

Next, the defence called a witness. Some confusion then followed. As soon as he approached, Thach Saveth exclaimed, “But I do not know him?!” while his mother, who was in the audience, shouted, “Yes, you know him!” The judge then asked the man to introduce himself. “My name is Cheth!” “Good. What is your family name?” “Cheth!” The judge persisted, “But when you work, how do you introduce yourself?” “Well, Cheth!” Laughters were heard in the audience while the court decided to dismiss the witness without hearing him. “In the future, follow the rules when you make a request for a witness to be heard,” the judge commented in a remark to the lawyers.
Prosecution witnesses at serious issue
The defence for Thach Saveth then requested that the Court re-examines the minutes of the statements of the witnesses for the prosecution. Witnesses who were heard only by the police and never appeared in a hearing, in breach of the adversarial principle. Witnesses whose testimonies do not match, some describing Thach Saveth as the killer, others as his accomplice, the motorbike driver. The judge of the Court of Appeal rejected the request and explained that the Court's only prerogatives were to review the cases transmitted by the Municipal Court and the police, not to interrogate the witnesses...

The Prosecutor called for the sentence to be held up on the basis of the statements of the four prosecution witnesses, while the defence had brought no exonerating evidence. As for the lawyers, they called for the case to be dismissed: their client was not in Phnom Penh on the day of the murder, he did not carry any weapon – for that matter, the weapon of the crime was never found – and the prosecution witnesses contradicted one another while they had never taken an oath as required by the procedure. “In a word, there is no evidence. This is a completely fabricated case!” Finally, the defendant spoke imploringly to request that the Court provides him with justice and claim his innocence.

A leader of another trade union suspected but never investigated
Contacted by telephone after the hearing, Chea Mony, president of the FTUWKC, stated that he did not believe the person arrested was the real killer, as in the case of the murder of his brother Chea Vichea. “In the complaint filed by the wife of Ros Sovannareth [now a refugee abroad] against the killers of her husband, she accused a leader of the Cambodian Union Federation (CUF), a pro-government union, that was in conflict with the FTUWKC within the [Trinuggal Komara] factory where Sovannareth used to work. But shortly after his murder, that person who was suspected stopped all of his union activities...” Sovannareth and other FTUWKC members had complained about receiving threats from the CUF leader. Not long after Sovannareth's murder, the chief of the criminal police of Phnom Penh had declared that the killing was to be connected with the conflict between the two unions within the factory. A hypothesis that has always been discarded by the judicial system.

Call to follow the example of the Supreme Court
On January 2nd 2009, while it welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court to release Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also encouraged in the same statement the government “to continue in the direction set by the Supreme Court” by revitalizing the investigation into the murder of Ros Sovannareth in particular.

Kek Galabru, president of Licadho, declared on Wednesday February 11th, that “[T]he Appeal Court [had] an opportunity to show that Cambodia's judiciary is not taking one step forward, two steps backwards” and called the Court to “issue a verdict which is based on an objective and impartial review of all the evidence in this case.” In a statement published on the same day, her organisation expressed concern over the attitude of the judges and prosecutor and considered they had failed to respect the presumption of innocence that the defendant must be entitled to before the verdict.
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KRouge trial unlikely to heal Cambodia's wounds

TRAPAING SVA VILLAGE, Cambodia (AFP) — Every day, Chhum At sees the former Khmer Rouge members who murdered her three brothers, two uncles and an aunt in this village near the Cambodian capital.

"We feel hot inside with hate and we still want to take revenge. But outside we speak with them," she says at a memorial where bones of the regime's victims are piled like kindling, mixed with tattered clothing and bits of rubbish.

As Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes tribunal prepares to prosecute a handful of senior leaders from the brutal 1970s communist movement, there is lingering hostility here that won't be resolved in a court.

Chhum At, 40, says she can't forgive her childhood under the Khmer Rouge: kept from her mother, she was forced to work in rice paddies and heard screams in the middle of the night as people were clubbed at a nearby "killing field".

Researchers believe the regime killed over 10,000 people at this village 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Phnom Penh -- a fraction of the estimated 1.7 million who died of overwork, starvation, execution and torture in an attempt to create a Marxist utopia.

When proceedings begin Tuesday against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the first of five leaders due to be tried, it's far from clear whether that will help Cambodians in places like this village put their past behind them.

A recent survey by the University of California, Berkeley found the majority of Cambodians still harbour feelings of hatred towards members of the Khmer Rouge responsible for violence.

Nearly half of the respondents said they were uncomfortable living in the same community with former Khmer Rouge members, while 71 percent said they wanted to see former cadres suffer in some way.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of Cambodians said they would take revenge against former Khmer Rouge members if they could.

"People in the village sometimes accuse each other and then everything will come out. They'll say: 'You killed my relatives,'" Chhum At says.

"When those arguments happen, sometimes we want to kill each other. But we cannot kill or we will go to prison," she adds.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge crimes, said people will need more than the trials of a handful of leaders to recover from the brutal past.

"I think most of the revenge has been done and the rest is a grey area that is difficult to deal with. It's more emotional, more of a trauma," he said.

Former Khmer Rouge cadres in this village say they are not worried about revenge, and most have made their peace with the past.

Chuon Chhon, who worked as a guard at the local Khmer Rouge prison, says he had nothing to do with the mass graves in the area.

"Many of my relatives were killed -- cousins, uncles, aunts -- I couldn't help them. I could only help myself," Chuon Chhon says.

"I also feel hurt. Of course I pity the other people. I was a low rank -- I couldn't help anyone," he adds.

Sao Phen, 63, who arrived in the village with the 1979 Vietnam-backed invasion force that toppled the Khmer Rouge, says there have been fewer revenge attacks over the past five years.

"People still have anger in their minds, but they don't show it publicly. It is better than before, when people would try to kill someone who accused them of killing their relatives," Sao Phen says.

He speculates that the upcoming trials, which put the blame for atrocities on a handful of senior leaders, may have helped reduce violence if they had been staged sooner. But, he adds, relationships change over time.

"Sometimes people avoid each other, but their daughter and son fall in love. When they get married, under Cambodian tradition their families are in an alliance. So how can they take revenge?" Sao Phen says.

But even if senior leaders are convicted and spend the rest of their lives in jail, Chhum At says she'll remain angry with former Khmer Rouge members in the village.

"If the trial can have a verdict soon, I will be very happy," she says.

"But after the trial it will continue to be like this, because we don't know what to do."
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IMF predicts hard landing for Cambodian economy

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia's economy will come under intense pressure in 2009 as tourism, garments and construction take a hit from the global economic slowdown, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

"Cambodia's exceptional growth performance... is coming under increasing strain from the global economic crisis and weakening external demand," English-language daily newspaper the Phnom Penh Post on Thursday quoted an IMF report as saying.

Foreign direct investment will decline and foreign reserves could fall to about 1.9 billion U.S. dollars, it said.

"Cambodia could experience a pronounced liquidity contraction and possible large reserve loss," it said.

Meanwhile, the report predicted 4.8 percent economic growth for Cambodia in 2009, but IMF Resident Representative John Nelmes warned that the projection will be downgraded.

"We are taking a close look at the growth projection... Since November, when the projection was made, the global crisis has intensified," he told the newspaper.

The World Bank has forecast 4.9 percent Gross Domestic Products(GDP) growth for Cambodia this year, while the Economist Conference, which belongs to the same company that publishes The Economist magazine, even said that it will nose-dive to 1 percent.

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