Mon, Oct 02, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Witness statement rocks Cambodian murder case

RUNNING SCARED Va Sothy, who says she saw the killing of a union leader and those convicted of his murder are innocent, has sought refuge overseas

AP , PHNOM PENH

Two men currently serving 20-year jail sentences forf murdering a prominent Cambodian union leader are innocent, a witness said in a statement obtained yesterday.

Va Sothy -- the former owner of a newsstand where union leader Chea Vichea was gunned down in 2004 -- said in her first signed statement that the men convicted of the murder by a court in August last year were "fakes" produced by the Cambodian police.

Va Sothy has left Cambodia, saying she feared for her life.

Chea Vichea was an outspoken critic of government corruption and human rights abuses and the former head of Cambodia's Free Trade Union of Workers.

Critics, including retired King Norodom Sihanouk, have condemned the guilty verdicts against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, saying they were scapegoats.

"The condemnation handed down on them is such a great injustice and unacceptable to humanity," Va Sothy said a four-page handwritten Cambodian-language statement obtained by reporters from a local newspaper.

Not the real killers

She urged the courts to release the men "because they are not the real killers."

When asked about her claim that police had used the two men as scapegoats, police Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry which oversees the police force, declined to comment and only said "the matter is now in the hands of the court."

Va Sothy's statement was dated Aug. 10 and notarized the same day by Nol Sughondhabirom, a Thai lawyer at Kanung & Partners Law Offices.

Va Sothy, 39, said she wrote the statement during her stay in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was seeking asylum in a third country under UN refugee status.

She said she regretted having to flee her country but that "if I continued to live in Cambodia, I might be dead without having the chance to disclose the truth about the murder."

Va Sothy, 39, said the real perpetrator spent about 20 minutes hanging around her newsstand before pulling out his gun and shooting Chea Vichea three times at close range.

The alleged assassin was a man about 1.6m tall and 27-30 years of age, she said, adding he acted cautiously while pretending to read her newspapers.

Up close and personal

"I observed he was regularly glancing at me and Chea Vichea. Suddenly, he walked to stand in front of me, his face turning toward Chea Vichea," she said.

"I heard a loud noise of gunfire three times just next to me, and Chea Vichea was beginning to drop to the ground. I also saw a black gun in that man's hand," she said.

The killer then put his gun into his pants' pocket and walked away composedly, she said.

The document is a "new weapon" that defense lawyers for the two convicted men will use at an upcoming appeal hearing, said Sok Sam Oeun, director of Cambodian Defenders Project, a nonprofit group providing legal aid to poor Cambodians. He is not related to the other Sok Sam Oeun, one of the two convicts.

He said Va Sothy prepared the statement just days before she left for resettlement in an unknown country.

He declined to reveal the name of the country "because she is scared of the real perpetrator."

He said his group has already submitted the evidence to the Appeals Court. A panel of judges is to rule on the evidence during a hearing scheduled for Saturday.

Va Sothy said about a month after the incident the killer returned to her store and asked her "What newspapers are out today?"

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