Human Rights Watch today called on the Cambodian government to prosecute an armed military intelligence officer who threatened to shoot an opposition member of Parliament on a busy street in Phnom Penh. Witnesses said police nearby took no action.
In a standoff that began at 4:30 p.m. on September 29 and lasted more than an hour, the officer threatened to kill Cheam Channy, a member of parliament who is part of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Five staff members from the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived after being told about the trouble and tried unsuccessfully to get help from a military policeman and a traffic policeman at the scene. They in turn also came under threat.
"It's an outrage that an army officer can threaten a member of parliament and U.N. workers with a gun in broad daylight while the police just watch," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "As of today, police have issued no arrest warrant. This continues a pattern of state harassment of opposition members and human rights defenders and impunity for the perpetrators."
The standoff began as Cheam Channy was driving his car along Kampuchea Kraom street, from his home. He stopped at the intersection of Pochentong Boulevard to make a telephone call at a public telephone office, forty meters from the Military Intelligence Headquarters. A uniformed military intelligence officer, who was in a coffee shop next door, came out into the street and angrily confronted Cheam Channy, whom he appeared to recognize. The soldier shouted that he hated the "despicable" opposition parties and pulled out a small revolver, which he aimed at Cheam Channy. One of the soldier's colleagues was able to restrain him.
Cheam Channy left his car and retreated to the other side of the street, where he alerted a military policeman and flagged down the car of another parliamentarian, who happened to be passing by. Together the two parliamentarians telephoned two generals, including Gen. Kieng Savon, who arrived on the scene thirty minutes later, around the same time as the U.N. staff members.
The U.N. workers sought intervention from a military police office and traffic policeman at the scene. The police said they could not take action without orders from their superiors. Calls were then placed to Col. Sim Hong, the deputy commander of the Municipal Military Police, who reportedly responded that the incident appeared to be a personal dispute that the parties could work out on their own. Col. Hong called back five minutes later to report that he had contacted the commander of the military intelligence. He suggested the U.N. staff members do the same to solve the problem. At no point did police or military authorities send in reinforcements.
A second confrontation, which lasted about fifteen minutes, occurred when Gen. Kieng Savon and U.N. staff members attempted to escort Channy back to his car. The Cambodia military officer who originally touched off the confrontation again pulled out his revolver, waved it around, and pointed it at Cheam Channy and the UN staff members. The general accompanying Gen. Kieng Savon pulled out his own gun and said, "If you shoot us, we'll shoot you back." The officer then retreated, taking off on a motorcycle with another man.
At this point Gen. Kieng Savon reportedly said he could not arrest the officer, nor could he file a complaint. U.N. workers tried calling Col. Sim Hong again, but he had turned off his telephone.
Eventually UN staff were able to get Cheam Channy to safety. According to Channy, he had never seen the officer who threatened him before, but it appeared the man knew who Channy was. (Military Intelligence Deputy Commander Hour Sareth told the Cambodia Daily on October 2 that the accused soldier could not have had a gun because only officers who hold the rank of colonel and up are entitled to have guns.)
Cheam Channy, an opposition parliamentarian from Battambang province, has received several threats in the past, including one death threat received on his mobile telephone during a session of the National Assembly. During the last several months there have been numerous incidents of violence and harassment of members of Sam Rainsy's party, particularly members from Battambang province, where the party is popular and plans to field many candidates in upcoming commune-level elections.