PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian court on Wednesday acquitted, and ordered the release of, two men said by rights groups to have been wrongfully convicted and jailed for the 2004 murder of a prominent opposition activist.
Cambodia's Supreme Court dropped all charges against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, saying there was not enough evidence to prove their guilt. The court decision ends a 20-year prison term handed down for the killing.
The men were found guilty of the murder of Chea Vichea, an outspoken critic of government corruption and leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU). Vichea was shot in the head and chest on January 22, 2004, at a newspaper kiosk in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Rights groups welcomed Wednesday's decision.
"The nightmare for scapegoats Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun is finally over, but their convictions without any credible evidence of guilt and years of imprisonment are an enduring black mark on the already tattered reputation of the Cambodian judiciary," Phil Robertson, deputy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
"Now the United Nations and embassies in Phnom Penh need to demand a real investigation to find the true culprits in the killing."
The men were arrested within days of the murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison each but in 2008 Cambodian authorities reopened the case and they were provisionally released by the Supreme Court in January 2009 to allow further investigation.
The men were re-arrested in 2012 in a decision widely condemned by rights groups. They have served five years of the 20-year term.
Violence against union leaders is not uncommon in Cambodia and activists say scapegoats are found to ensure those instigating the attacks go unpunished.
Cambodia's garments industry, which contributes the bulk of the members of the FTU, is the country's biggest export earner, with shipments up 10 percent in 2012 to $4.44 billion.
Cambodia is considered one of the better locations in the world for low-cost garment manufacturing, with the International Labour Organisation monitoring pay and working conditions at many factories.
But strikes and sometimes violent protests have been on the rise, as unions emboldened by a shortage of skilled workers demand better wages and working conditions.
Chea Mony, Vichea's brother and current leader of the FTU, urged authorities to find the real culprits.
"Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are not the killers," Chea Mony told Reuters.
"Who is the killer? The government needs to continue to find out."
Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Clarence Fernandez