(New York, June 30, 2004) -- Cambodia’s judiciary should follow the evidence, not political dictates, in a hearing on Thursday for the accused killers of union leader Chea Vichea, Human Rights Watch said today. The high profile murder case has been marred by reports of forced confessions by the suspects and political pressure on the investigating judge.
On March 19 the investigating judge, Hing Thirith, ordered that the case be dismissed for lack of evidence. The following day, Prosecutor Khut Sokheng challenged Thirith’s decision, and sent the case to the Appeals Court. Shortly afterwards, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, which holds constitutional responsibility for appointing and disciplining judicial officers, removed the investigating judge from his position at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for unspecified judicial mistakes. It also ordered that he be transferred to the remote province of Stung Treng.
“This hearing is a critical test for the Cambodian judiciary,” said Sara Colm, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “We hope that the Appeals Court carefully considers the evidence in making its decision, rather than responding to political pressure.”
Chea Vichea, 36, was the founder and president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia and a vocal supporter of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). He was shot and killed in broad daylight in front of a newsstand in Phnom Penh on January 22. Despite receiving death threats, Vichea was well known for his outspoken efforts to organize garment workers and to fight for improved working conditions in Cambodia.
Chea Vichea’s assassination was one in a series of political killings in Cambodia during the last year. Four other political activists were killed in January, including an SRP activist in Kompong Cham province, two SRP activists in Banteay Meanchey province, and an activist for the royalist Funcinpec party in Kampot province. In May, another union leader, Ros Sovanareth, was assassinated. Those killed during 2003 included a radio journalist and popular singer, both of whom were affiliated with Funcinpec; a judge and a court clerk; and a senior adviser to Prince Norodom Ranariddh. At least 13 political party activists were killed in the run-up to Cambodia’s national elections in July 2003.
Cambodia’s judicial system has been widely condemned by the United Nations and many of its member states for its lack of independence, low levels of competence, and corruption.