Statue of not much liberty

May 15, 2013

Wafting to work the other day, I was startled to see that a new statue had appeared at the arse-end of a traffic island on a fairly major junction. The stone statue, of a very small man making a speech, has just been plonked down on the edge of a strip of grass near an advertising hoarding: a far cry from the millions that are being spent on a new statue of the late King Father, which gets its own vast pagoda, nearby.

The little statue

The little statue

But the new diminutive stone statue is far more important in the recent history of this country, reminding everyone of one of the more politically charged killings here in recent years.

The statue is of slain union leader Chea Vichea, and is close to where he was shot to death nine years ago as he read a newspaper.

What Chea Vichea really looked like

What Chea Vichea really looked like

The killing of Chea has all the elements of a Hollywood movie: a murdered political figure, assassins on motorcycles, death threats, allegations of police corruption, witnesses claiming they’ve been intimidated, and two men serving 20-year prison sentences for a crime almost no one believes they committed.

Chea’s funeral in Phnom Penh filled the city streets with tens of thousands of mourners, and his death sparked an immediate outcry from rights groups and foreign diplomats.

Chea had managed to survive the Khmer Rouge, and went on to help found what became Cambodia’s main opposition party.

His reputation grew as a charismatic leader who travelled around the country, working tirelessly to convince garment workers to join the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

After his shooting, the Phnom Penh police arrested two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. But the apparently swift justice was soon under scrutiny.

Discrepancies in the investigation, along with a lack of evidence meant that at Born and Sok’s first trial in March 2004, the judge threw the case out, citing a lack of evidence.

However, the Appeals Court overruled his decision and ordered a retrial. The judge was removed from his post and transferred to a remote part of the country.

Two years later, they were brought to trial again. Born, who had signed a confession after his arrest, told the court he had been tortured by police into doing so.

The two accused men

The two accused men

Va Sothy, the key witness and the owner of the newsstand where Chea was shot dead, sent a notarised statement to the court saying that the two men were innocent.

“I understood that the fake murderers had been created, because I could clearly remember the faces of the murderers and they were not the same as the pictures publicised,” she wrote.

She did not testify in person because she had fled the country, saying that being the only witness to what was the most political murder of the decade had put her in danger.

The courts disregarded her testimony.

Hope were raised for the pair in December 2008, when the Supreme Court released them on bail and ordered the Appeals Court to reinvestigate the case.

However, late last year the Appeals Court upheld the original verdict. The pair were sent back to prison, where they remain today.

The Cambodian government has denied any wrongdoing.

“Right now everyone wants to put the blame on politics,” said a spokesman, rejecting claims of government intervention.

“We cannot say who is wrong or right, but we respect the court’s decision.”

I bet they do.

But I suppose it is progress of a sort that the government has let the statue be erected, although it’s a pretty feeble simulacrum, and tiny. But there’s a long way still to go.

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