(New York) - The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should reopen its long-stalled investigation into the grisly grenade attack on an opposition party rally in Phnom Penh 11 years ago that left at least 16 dead and more than 150 injured, Human Rights Watch said today. The FBI investigation, which made significant progress in 1997, has been effectively abandoned.
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 corruption and lack of independence. In a well-planned attack, four grenades were thrown into the crowd, killing protesters and bystanders, including children, and tearing limbs off street vendors. The grenade attack made headlines and provoked outrage around the world. On June 29, 1997, the Washington Post 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 was close to solving the case when its lead investigator was suddenly ordered out of the country by the US ambassador, Kenneth Quinn,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The FBI has damning evidence in its files that suggests that Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the attack, but it has refused to fully cooperate with congressional inquiries or follow through on its initial investigation. Instead of trying to protect US relations with Cambodia, it should now finish what it started.”
The FBI investigated the attack because Ron Abney, a US citizen, was seriously injured in the blast, which the United States at the time deemed to be an “act of terrorism.” Abney had to be evacuated to Singapore to treat shrapnel wounds in his hip.
Instead of launching a serious investigation, then co-Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the demonstration’s organizers should be arrested and instructed police not to allow them to leave the country. (To read an Agence France-Presse account published at the time, please visit: https://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2006/03/28/cambod13086.htm).
On the day of the attack, Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, Brigade-70 (B-70), was, for the first time, deployed at a demonstration. Photographs show them in full riot gear. The police, which had in the past maintained a high-profile presence at opposition demonstrations to discourage public participation, had an unusually low profile on that day. Officers were grouped around the corner from the park, having been ordered to stay away from the park itself. 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 eyewitnesses reported that the persons who had thrown the grenades were seen running toward Hun Sen’s bodyguards, who were deployed in a line at the west end of the park near the guarded residential compound containing the homes of many senior Cambodia People’s Party leaders. Witnesses told United Nations and FBI investigators that the bodyguard line opened to allow the grenade-throwers to escape into the compound. Meanwhile, people in the crowd pursuing the grenade-throwers were stopped by the bodyguards at gunpoint and told they would be shot if they did not retreat.
“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 – to send the message that opposition supporters can be murdered without ever facing justice.”
In a June 1997 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Hing Bun Heang, deputy commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit and operationally in charge of the bodyguards at the park on March 30, 1997, threatened to kill journalists who alleged that Hun Sen’s bodyguards were involved. Hing Bun Heang has since been promoted as deputy director of Hun Sen’s cabinet and, in September 2006, appointed as supreme consultant to Cambodia’s Senior Monk Assembly and assistant to Supreme Patriachs Tep Vong and Bou Kry.
The bodyguard unit B-70 remains notorious in Cambodia for violence, corruption, and the impunity it enjoys as the de facto private army of Hun Sen. According to a 2007 report by the nongovernmental organization Global Witness, “The elite Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Brigade 70 unit makes between US$2 million and US$2.5 million per year through transporting illegally logged timber and smuggled goods. A large slice of the profits generated through these activities goes to Lieutenant General Hing Bun Heang, commander of the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit.”
In one notorious case in 2006, two soldiers from B-70 shot a Phnom Penh beer promotion girl in the foot for being too slow to bring them ice. They were arrested by military police, but released hours later by their commander. A representative of the commander said the victim would be paid $500 compensation by B-70, but no criminal investigation or prosecution ensued.
“Instead of investigating the senior officer in charge of the bodyguard unit implicated in the 1997 grenade attack and who threatened to kill journalists reporting on it, Hun Sen has promoted him,” said Adams. “Apparently, Hun Sen considers such a person qualified for a senior position in the country’s official Buddhist hierarchy.”
Given the serious and credible allegations of the involvement of the Cambodian military in the grenade attack, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the United States has increased military assistance and training to the Cambodian military before it completed its investigation into the 1997 attack.
Human Rights Watch called on the US to ensure that it is not providing any assistance or training to current or former members of B-70 or other Cambodian special military units with records of human rights abuse. In an effort to solidify counterterrorism cooperation, the FBI in 2006 awarded a medal to the Cambodian Chief of National Police Hok Lundy for his support in the US “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.
“No credible explanation has ever been offered for the deployment or behavior of Hun Sen’s bodyguards on March 30, 1997,” said Adams. “Their actions may reach the highest levels of the Cambodian government, yet the FBI investigation has been dropped. The fact that the US is providing military assistance instead of investigating the grenade attack shows that it is effectively complicit with the Cambodian government in abandoning any hope for justice for the victims of this horrific attack.”