Cambodia to probe past union leader killings

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia has belatedly set up a committee to probe the murders of three trade unionists, a move greeted with caution by rights groups in a country where political killings have long been carried out with impunity.

The government of strongman prime minister Hun Sen has ordered the creation of "an inter-ministries committee to specially investigate" the murders of three unionists, according to a directive obtained by AFP on Thursday.

Chea Vichea, the most prominent of the three slain unionists and a staunch Hun Sen critic, was gunned down in 2004 at a Phnom Penh news stand in broad daylight.

The shooting sparked outrage and his murder rapidly became a symbol of the kingdom's culture of impunity for powerful interest groups determined to muzzle dissent.

His union, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU), lobbied on behalf of the country's crucial but often exploited garment workers.

The other two unionists, Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy, also both of FTU, were killed in 2004 and 2007 respectively.

Two men were jailed for Chea Vichea's murder but rights groups insisted they been scapegoated and the pair were eventually acquitted in 2013.

Similarly, a man accused of killing Ros Sovannareth was jailed in 2005 but the verdict was overturned six years later.

No one has been convicted of Hy Vuthy's murder.

Chea Mony, Chea Vichea's brother and the current head of the FTU, told AFP that he welcomed the creation of the committee but said he hoped it would show "real will".

He added that members of civil society groups and relatives of the victims should have been included in the panel.

Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, was less optimistic.

"It is too late now. Witnesses may have gone abroad and evidence could already have disappeared," he told AFP.

Cambodia's multi-billion dollar garment industry employs about 650,000 people in Cambodia and is a key source of foreign income for the impoverished country.

Disputes over wages, safety and conditions in Cambodia's lucrative garment industry are frequent and sometimes turn violent.