Three people widely believed to be innocent have been jailed in highly politicized cases in Cambodia, sparking a fresh outcry from campaigners calling for judicial reform.
Human rights groups have denounced the Cambodian court system as "a mockery of justice" after two key decisions seen as politically motivated were handed down.
Early Thursday morning, two men widely considered to be innocent scapegoats were handed 20-year jail sentences for the 2004 murder of a popular trade union leader, Chea Vichea.
The men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had been arrested and sentenced to prison shortly after Chea Vichea was shot dead while reading his morning paper at a newsstand in Phnom Penh. They were freed on bail in 2009 by the Cambodian Supreme Court, which ordered a reinvestigation of the case due to numerous irregularities.
Among the problems with the case, which have been flagged by the UN rights office the International Labor Organization, and dozens of human rights organizations, are a lack of evidence, the fact that both men have alibis, and a coerced confession obtained from Born Samnang, who has since recanted. In 2006, the former Phnom Penh police chief, Heng Pov, who led the initial investigation implicating the two men, said in an interview that they had been framed for the murder under orders from the powerful national police commissioner.
Still, despite the weight of evidence exonerating Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, a three-year reinvestigation by the Cambodian Court of Appeal had reaffirmed their guilt, Judge Chuon Sunleng announced.
The two began to cry as the verdict was pronounced and continued to do so as they were handcuffed and led away by armed police. Born Samnang screamed over and over, “Why? Why? I am not a murderer.”
Sok Sam Oeun's wife and two-year-old daughter followed behind the two prisoners, also weeping. "From now on, I will live alone with my daughter and farm by myself," she said. "My husband is a good man, not a killer."
Although the two men were ordered to pay compensation of $10,000 to Chea Vichea's family, his brother, Chea Mony, also a union leader, declared that he would not accept money from men he believed to be innocent.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights issued a statement calling the decision "the final nail in Cambodia's judicial coffin."
Anti-eviction activist convicted
Yet just two hours later, in another courtroom across town, a young mother and housing rights activist was jailed for three years on charges that Amnesty International (AI) says have been concocted in retaliation for her work in leading protests against forced evictions.
Yorm Bopha had been detained in September for allegedly helping beat two mototaxi drivers in a street fight near her home in the Boeng Kak neighborhood, which has seen thousands of families evicted since a company owned by a wealthy and powerful senator leased the area in 2007 to build a residential and shopping complex. Details about the brawl have been sketchy, and it is unclear how exactly Yorm Bopha is alleged to have hurt the men.
Outside the courthouse on Thursday, a large group of Yorm Bopha's fellow activists who had been protesting for her release for two straight days, armed with lotus flowers to demonstrate their peaceful intent, began to wail when they heard the news. Her son had painted his face with the words, "I need a mother."
After the verdict was pronounced, Yorm Bopha said through tears, "This is very unjust. This is a society ruled by the dollar. I hope someday I will find justice."
"Flagrant misuse" of courts
Cambodia's court system has long been considered corrupt and in thrall to the ruling Cambodian People's Party, but this year it has come under particular criticism for a series of decisions that targeted government critics while exonerating the wealthy and well-connected.
Last week, a provincial court dropped charges against a powerful mayor who had shot and injured three female garment workers protesting outside a Puma shoe factory earlier this year.
The mayor, Chhouk Bandith, had admitted to firing his gun at the protest, and numerous eyewitnesses had pointed to him as the shooter, but the court found instead that a low-ranking police officer was the only suspect in the case.
Citing the Bandith case as well as the two decisions handed down on Thursday, AI said they confirmed "the dire state of Cambodia's justice system and rule of law in the country."
The group urged Cambodia's donors, who have spent millions on judicial reform over the past decade, to put pressure on the government to improve its record.
Human Rights Watch also denounced the court decisions, saying that they demonstrated "the Cambodian government's flagrant misuse of the justice system to undermine rights."
"The Cambodian government has no shame in using the courts as an arm of oppression," said Brad Adams, the organization's Asia director.