The gunman in a high-profile killing alone remains in jail on a life sentence after four associates — including once-convicted mastermind tycoon Thong Sarath — had their charges dropped once they were released on bail, the Supreme Court heard on Wednesday.
The victim, Sarath’s business rival Ung Meng Cheu, was shot repeatedly as he stepped out of his SUV outside a fruit store in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district in 2014.
Sarath was arrested for the murder alongside his bodyguards Seang Veasna, Meas Sambath, Kouy Chanthol and Chhum Chetra. All were handed life sentences in 2019.
Later that year, however, all but Veasna, who the court ruled had pulled the trigger, were released on bail.
On Wednesday, Veasna appealed his conviction at the same time that Meng Cheu’s family appealed the other four individuals’ release.
Teng Bora, a lawyer for the victim’s family, said the four should not have had their charges dropped.
The gunman did not know the deceased, and the trial in the lower court had presented evidence of the involvement of Sarath and his other bodyguards, Bora said.
He added that the family was still seeking $50 million more in compensation. They had so far only received a fraction of that, he said.
“This is very unjust for my client,” he said, arguing the family was indebted and desperate.
Veasna, the gunman, meanwhile, denied that he was even in Phnom Penh at the time of the murder.
“I didn’t commit it and I have a witness,” he said. “I never knew Ung Meng Cheu and I am very poor. How could I have done any business with him? … I didn’t have a gun.”
His lawyer Sin Soworn alleged police had tortured Veasna upon his arrest, and once he was unconscious, put his thumbprint on a confession.
The court must find the real murderer, she said, adding that it was hard to accept the absolution of the other four while Veasna remained under a life sentence.
Prosecutor Bou Bun Heang asked the Supreme Court to uphold the Appeal Court’s decision to drop the charges against the four. An Appeal Court spokesperson could not be reached about the dropping of charges.
Since Sarath’s arrest, his wife became active in the ruling party, including contributing at least $150,000 to the government’s Covid-19 efforts in 2020, according to local news reports.
A Supreme Court decision is expected on February 17.