A Surprising Legal Turn In Cambodia

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In Cambodia, Born Samnang had a New Year's Eve he'll never forget: He was released after five years in prison. He'd been convicted of a crime nobody — not even the Cambodian authorities — thought he committed. His release surprised almost everyone. But nobody's saying that the rule of law has returned to Cambodia.


Now we'll turn to Cambodia. The murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge ended 30 years ago, but the rule of law can still be a hit or miss affair. That's why a recent court ruling seems so unusual because, as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports, the good guys seem to have won.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Nobody saw this one coming.

Ms. SARA COLM (Senior Asia Researcher, Human Rights Watch): We were surprised by the decision, to be frank. It's a bit rare in Cambodia to have a human rights victory, I'd have to say.

SULLIVAN: That's Sara Colm from Human Rights Watch in Phnom Penh. Someone who may have been even more surprised is 28-year-old Born Samnang. He's one of the two men released on New Year's Eve, freed by the Supreme Court after spending five years in prison for the 2004 murder of labor activist Chea Vichea, an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government. Born Samnang says he and the other man charged had nothing to do with the murder, and almost everyone in the city seems to know that. But Born Samnang says he was still shocked when the judge gave him his freedom and ordered a new investigation into the murder.

Mr. BORN SAMNANG: (Through Translator) When the judge said we're to be released, I didn't believe it. I thought it was some kind of a trick. But then I saw, he was serious, and tears started rolling down my cheek.

SULLIVAN: It was that rare day when the Cambodian judicial system delivered in a country where the culture of impunity is so deeply ingrained. Sara Colm.

Ms. COLM: Two men essentially being framed by someone very high up in the national police force who later admitted that the two men had been framed. The key witness to the murder who saw the whole thing carried out said that these two men were not the ones. Yet, these two men have spent five years in prison when they shouldn't have spent a day in prison.

SULLIVAN: Five years that began, Born Samnang says, with his forced confession while in police custody.

Mr. SAMNANG: (Through Translator) They had a confession all written up and told me to sign. I was sitting with my arms cuffed behind my back. When I refused to sign, they started hitting me from behind. Then, they took my cuffed hand and forced my thumbprint onto the paper.

SULLIVAN: He won't talk much about how he was treated in prison, afraid he might be sent back again. Chea Mony, the brother of slain activist Chea Vichea, says the young man has reason to be worried.

Mr. CHEA MONY: (Through Translator) I'm sure that neither of these men had anything to do with my brother's murder, he says, but they could still be sent back to jail at any time. And the real murderers, the ones sent by the government, he says, are still out there.

SULLIVAN: The government denies any involvement in the murder, and it's not really clear why the court chose to release the two men. But Human Rights Watch's Sara Colm says pressure from human rights groups and the international community may have helped. It probably didn't hurt that the two highest ranking police officials involved in the case are now gone. One in prison himself, the other died in a helicopter crash a few months ago. Sara Colm.

Ms. COLM: We don't see this as sort of solving the problem of impunity and lack of an independent judiciary here in Cambodia. Maybe it's a step in that direction and something we really applaud, but there will need to be ongoing vigilance and monitoring and pressure, particularly from the international community, which I think does have an impact at times here.

SULLIVAN: Born Samnang, meanwhile, has a few new year's resolutions, the first to be a better son to the mother who kicked him out of the house shortly before he was picked up by police. She disapproved of his late nights and his partying. Both regret what happened between them and say it probably helped convince the police who framed him, he wouldn't be missed.

Mr. SAMNANG: (Through Translator) I thought about it every day while in prison. If I had only listened to my mom, I would not have been involved in all of this. I would not have been charged by the police.

SULLIVAN: His mother, Nuon Kimsry, says the blame is hers.

Ms. NUON KIMSRY: (Khmer Spoken)

SULLIVAN: I made a quick decision, she says. I shouldn't have been so hard on him. Both say they'll do better this time around. I'm closing the book on my old life, Born Samnang says, and opening a new page to start a new life with my mom. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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