(New York) - Nine years after the grenade attack on an opposition party rally in Phnom Penh that left at least 16 dead and more than 150 injured, there has been no progress in bringing the perpetrators to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government, which looked into the attack because an American was wounded, to reopen its investigation.

“The grenade attack sent a message that to oppose those in power is dangerous, even lethal, while those in charge who commit the worst kinds of human rights violations will get away with murder,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

On March 30, 1997, a crowd of approximately 200 supporters of the opposition Khmer Nation Party (KNP), led by former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, gathered in a park across the street from the National Assembly to denounce the judiciary’s lack of independence and judicial corruption. In a well-planned attack, four grenades were thrown into the crowd, killing protestors and bystanders, including children, and blowing limbs off street vendors. After the first grenade exploded, Sam Rainsy’s bodyguard, Han Muny, threw himself on top of his leader. He took the full force of a subsequent grenade and died at the scene. Rainsy escaped with a minor leg injury.

Instead of launching a serious investigation, co-Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately called for the arrest of the demonstration’s organizers and instructed police not to allow them to leave the country. (To read an Agence France Presse account published at the time, please go here.)

The attack took place at a time of extreme political tension. The coalition government between the royalist FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was unravelling after armed clashes in Battambang province the previous month. Sam Rainsy’s KNP was seen as a threat in national elections scheduled for the following year. For more than a year, he and his party members had been the subject of attacks and threats from CPP officials and agents.

“This brazen attack, carried out in broad daylight, ingrained impunity more than any other single act in recent Cambodian history,” said Adams. “But that appears to have been one of its purposes.”

On the day of the attack Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit was, for the first time, deployed at a demonstration. Photographs show them there in full riot gear. The police force, which had previously maintained a high-profile presence at opposition demonstrations in an effort to discourage public participation, had an unusually low profile on this day, grouped around the corner from the park. Other police units, however, were in a nearby police station in full riot gear on high alert.

Also for the first time, the KNP had received official permission from both the Ministry of the Interior and the Phnom Penh municipality to hold a demonstration, fuelling speculation that the demonstration was authorized so it could be attacked.

Numerous witnesses reported that the persons who had thrown the grenades ran towards Hun Sen’s bodyguards, who were deployed in a line at the west end of the park in front of a closed and guarded residential compound containing the homes of many senior CPP leaders. Witnesses told United Nations and U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators that the line opened to allow the grenade-throwers to pass into the compound, but members of the crowd pursuing the grenade-throwers were stopped at gunpoint and threatened with being shot if they did not retreat.

In a June 1997 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Hing Bun Heang, deputy commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, threatened to kill journalists who alleged that Hun Sen’s bodyguards were involved.

“No credible explanation has ever been offered for the deployment or behavior of Hun Sen’s bodyguards,” said Adams. “Their actions seem to speak for themselves, and may reach the highest levels of the Cambodian government, yet the only investigation, by the U.S., has been dropped. A kind of intentional amnesia has set in where no government or donor now says a word about the attack.”

At the time, the grenade attack made headlines and provoked outrage around the world. The Washington Post dispatched one of its senior investigative reporters to Phnom Penh. On June 29, 1997, R. Jeffrey Smith wrote:

In a classified report that could pose some awkward problems for U.S. policymakers, the FBI tentatively has pinned responsibility for the blasts, and the subsequent interference, on personal bodyguard forces employed by Hun Sen, one of Cambodia's two prime ministers, according to four U.S. government sources familiar with its contents. The preliminary report was based on a two-month investigation by FBI agents sent here under a federal law giving the bureau jurisdiction whenever a U.S. citizen is injured by terrorism... The bureau says its investigation is continuing, but the agents involved reportedly have complained that additional informants here are too frightened to come forward.

The FBI investigated the attack because Ron Abney, a U.S. citizen, was seriously injured in the blast, which the United States deemed to be an “act of terrorism.” Abney had to be evacuated to Singapore to treat shrapnel wounds in his hip.

While the investigation made a promising start, the Cambodian authorities failed to cooperate sufficiently and it soon wound down. Although on January 9, 2000, CIA director George Tenet said the United States would never forget an act of terrorism against its citizens and would bring those responsible to justice “no matter how long it takes,” the investigation has been inactive for many years and has effectively been abandoned.

The FBI this month awarded a medal to the Cambodian Chief of National Police, Hok Lundy, for his support of the U.S. global “war on terror.” Hok Lundy was chief of the national police at the time of the grenade attack and has long been linked to political violence.

“It is odd that the FBI is giving medals to a known human rights abuser for his assistance in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts but has dropped its investigation into this atrocity,” said Adams. “The FBI should go back to Cambodia and finish what it started, no matter where the trail leads.”

Just three months after the grenade attack, on July 5-6, 1997, Hun Sen staged a bloody coup to consolidate his power. According to the United Nations, approximately 100 political opponents were executed by his forces during and after the coup.

“The grenade attack and coup changed everything in Cambodian politics, and their consequences are still being felt today,” said Adams. “They made it impossible to have serious elections the following year and paved the way for Hun Sen, through force, to become the country’s unchallenged leader. And many Cambodians are still afraid to participate in politics, since to be involved in opposition politics is to risk your life.”

Photos and family statements about 12 of the dead can be found here.