Cambodia: where trade union killers go scot-free


27 December, 2012, will go down as one of the bleakest days in the history of Cambodian justice.

On that day, the Appeal Court of Phnom Penh ordered Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun to return to prison.

These two scapegoats were accused by the authorities of killing Chea Vichea, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) on Chinese New Year in January 2004.

The arrest of these two men and their subsequent sentencing in Phnom Penh to 20 years in prison in 2005, despite the absence of evidence, unleashed massive protests within Cambodia and internationally, so blatant was the fact that they had nothing to do with Chea Vichea’s murder.

"Born Samnang had confessed to the killing of Chea Vichea under torture whilst in detention. But when the government put him in front of the media he retracted the confession," explains Naly Pilorge, Director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO).

"Many people came before the court to testify in favour of Born Samnang, who was celebrating Chinese New Year in another province at the time of the murder. Our investigations have also shown that Sok Sam Oeun was celebrating the New Year in a private home.

"The first judge to cross-examine the two suspects had dropped the charges against them. He was removed from his position the following day, accused of corruption!"

At the end of 2008, the Supreme Court of Cambodia released the two men on bail and ordered the Appeal Court to re-investigate the case.

In the absence of any new evidence, it was thought that the Appeal Court would clear Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun once and for all, but contrary to expectation they were ordered back to prison, where they now have to serve out the rest of their sentences.

Meanwhile, those actually guilty of the crime are still on the loose.

"A documentary on the murder clearly shows that high-level officials are implicated and that the government does not want an inquiry that would lead to the arrest of the real culprits," says Tola Moeun of the Labour Programme at the Community Legal Education Centre in Phnom Pehn.


Behind the façade

Since Chea Vichea’s murder, two more FTUWKC union leaders have also been killed in Cambodia: Ros Sovannareth in May 2004 and Hy Vuthy in February 2007.

The Cambodian authorities have failed, yet again, to arrest the culprits.

Such impunity is not confined to those perpetrating crimes against trade unionists: "Eleven journalists have been killed since the nineties and not one culprit has been arrested," says Naly Pilorge.

On 26 April 2012, environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot dead whilst accompanying journalists to a protected forest in Koh Kong province.

In a report on the culture of impunity in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch revealed that the investigation into Chut Wutty’s murder was totally devoid of credibility.

According to the same report, members of the Cambodian security forces have killed more than 300 people, including journalists and opposition politicians, since 1991.

None of these cases have been seriously investigated and no-one has been prosecuted.

Behind the façade of democracy, Cambodia continues to be one of the countries in the region where exercising fundmental rights is the most dangerous.

"We have the structures of a democracy but, in practice, the repression is similar to that of countries like Vietnam, China and Laos, where it is less veiled," says Naly Pilorge.

"In Cambodia, one has to go and see what is hidden behind the façade to understand the reality of the situation. In the world of work, for instance, hundreds of pro-government or pro-employer unions make it very difficult for the few independent unions to operate. With regard to NGOs, there are dozens of pro-government human rights organisations, as compared with no more than six legitimate ones."

The Cambodian justice system once again demonstrated its ineffectiveness in the case against former Bavet city governor, Chhouk Bandith, who shot three female workers during a protest on 20 February 2012 in the province of Svay Rieng.

On 4 March 2013, the Appeal Court upheld the very light charge of "causing involuntary bodily harm" and referred the case back to the Svay Rieng court, which had already acquitted him in 2012. Given the former governor’s power to influence this court, he is likely to get off scot-free once again.


No justice

The ITUC’s latest annual reports on trade union rights violations catalogue the many abuses that have been committed by employers and the authorities without any kind of justice being delivered.

"The legislation establishes a fine equal to a maximum of 90 days’ wages, a maximum prison term of one month or a combination of both penalties for acts of discrimination against trade unions. Such penalties have never been applied to a single employer in Cambodia," says Tola Moeun.

The reason for this impunity is the total lack of independence of the Cambodian justice system.

"In cases where the two parties in a dispute have the same socio-economic status, have no connections in high places and no way of putting pressure on the courts, the judges and prosecutors occasionally interpret the laws correctly," notes Naly Pilorge.

"As soon as one of the two parties has connections or financial resources, the ruling goes in favour of the party best able to influence the court." The Cambodian judiciary’s complete lack of independence has also been denounced by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.

A new wave of repression against independent unions is expected in the days to come.

"Over recent weeks, television stations tied to the government have being broadcasting adverts mocking the action of independent trade unions. Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay has also said that it would be better for Cambodia to move towards a single union type system," reports an independent observer in Phnom Penh who wishes to remain anonymous.

"You can feel the tension rising within the government as the July parliamentary elections draw nearer.

Four trade unions – The CLC (Cambodian Labour Confederation), CCU (Cambodian Confederation of Unions), NIFTUC (National Independent Federation of Textile Unions of Cambodia) and the CUMW (Collective Union of Movement of Workers) – are calling on workers to mobilise on May Day in protest at the poverty wages in the garment sector.

They are inviting political parties to send public speakers to give their views on the matter. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen fears losing face on occasions like these, and will probably do everything in its power to obstruct the workers’ rally."