A Cambodian court has ordered the return to prison of two men seen by rights groups as scapegoats for the 2004 murder of a prominent unionist, the latest controversial ruling in a country often criticised for its lack of judicial Independence.
The Appeals Court on Thursday upheld a lower court's handing down of 20-year jail terms for Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for killing Free Trade Union (FTU) leader Chea Vichea.
Following years of public outcry, the Supreme Court had released the two on bail in 2008 after three years in jail to allow further investigation. The Appeals Court on Thursday made no mention of any new evidence against them.
"Please help me, this is very unjust," Born Samnang shouted as he was taken away by police. He wept and said he would seek help from King Norodom Sihamoni to clear his name.
Chea Vichea, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, was gunned down in broad daylight at a newsstand in the capital Phnom Penh - a killing decried by activists as an attempt to silence his labour union, the largest in the country.
Days later, Born Samnang, now 32, and Sok Sam Oeun, 43, were arrested and jailed for 20 years each in a verdict which rights watchdogs said was based on insufficient evidence.
An alliance of 19 local organisations, activists and rights groups condemned the ruling and said the judges chose to "systematically dismiss and ignore evidence and testimonies in favour of the two".
It issued a statement saying both men had credible alibis and a newspaper seller - the only witness to Chea Vichea's murder - and the former lead police investigator had said Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were not the killers.
"This morning's verdict has left us speechless," said Moeun Tola of the Cambodia Legal Education Centre. "The Appeals Court decision defies any sense of justice and rule of law."
'Blow to human rights'
Chea Mony, the current FTU president and brother of the late Chea Vichea, said he was shocked by Thursday's ruling and criticised the authorities for failing to bring the real culprits to justice.
"We have not seen any light of justice at all in this case," Chea Mony told Reuters. "The court is well aware of what's going on and that it lacks its independence."
Cambodia's positive image among investors as one of Asia's most promising emerging economies and a cheaper alternative to China is being dented by allegations of rampant rights abuses and political interference in the judiciary to silence dissent or allow well-connected figures to walk free.
Violence against union leaders is not uncommon in Cambodia and activists say scapegoats have been found to ensure those instigating the attacks go unpunished.
As Cambodia's $4.2 billion garment manufacturing sector grows, unions and workers are becoming increasingly emboldened, holding protests and strikes over pay and working conditions.
Rights groups were incensed last week when a local politician connected with the ruling party was cleared by a
court of firing bullets into a crowd of striking factory workers earlier this year, wounding three women.
Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, said in the joint statement that the Appeals Court's decision on Thursday was another blow to human rights in Cambodia.
"This verdict adds to the many tragedies which occurred in 2012, making it the worse year in over a decade when it comes to human rights and rule of law."