(New York) - Twelve years after a grenade attack on an opposition party rally that killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 100, the Cambodian government has still taken no steps to bring the perpetrators to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch criticized the recent promotions of officials suspected of involvement in that attack.
On March 30, 1997, about 200 supporters of the opposition politician Sam Rainsy gathered in a park across the street from the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to denounce the judiciary's lack of independence and judicial corruption. In a well-planned attack, four grenades were thrown into the crowd, killing protesters and bystanders, including children, and blowing limbs off street vendors. An FBI investigation concluded that Cambodian government officials were responsible for the attack.
"The attack on Sam Rainsy and his supporters remains an open wound in Cambodia, but neither the government nor Cambodia's donors are doing anything to hold those responsible to account," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The perpetual failure to address this crime has made March 30 ‘Impunity Day' in Cambodia. This anniversary, on the day the Khmer Rouge trials is beginning, shows how far Cambodia has to go toward holding human rights abusers accountable."
On the day of the grenade attack, Prime Minister Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, Brigade 70, was, for the first time, deployed at a demonstration. The elite military unit, in full riot gear, not only failed to prevent the attack, but was seen by numerous witnesses opening up its lines to allow the grenade-throwers to escape and threatening to shoot people trying to pursuing the attackers.
Rather than punishing the people who ordered and carried out the grenade attack, the government has handed out high-level promotions to several known human rights abusers in Cambodia's armed forces and national police - including at least two linked to the 1997 attack.
The commander of Brigade 70 at the time, Huy Piseth, who ordered the deployment of Brigade 70 forces to the scene that day, is now undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Defense. Hing Bunheang, who was deputy commander of Brigade 70 at the time and who threatened to kill journalists investigating the case, was promoted to deputy military commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) in January 2009.
"Handing out promotions to people implicated in massacring peaceful demonstrators is a slap in the face for the victims," said Adams. "This seems to be an intentional message from Hun Sen - that those who do his bidding will be promoted, no matter how egregious their acts."
Six other deputy military commanders face serious allegations of human rights abuses and were also promoted in January. These include Military Intelligence Chief Mol Roeup and Military Police Commander Sao Sokha. Like the commanders of Brigade 70, these men are close confidants of Hun Sen who have been implicated in abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
The failure to pursue those responsible for the 1997 attack is part of a widespread pattern of well-connected perpetrators evading justice. Some examples include:
- On September 4, 2008, Mean Sokchea, a RCAF major working in Brigade 70, shot dead 21-year-old waitress Put Samphors at a restaurant in Kandal province. Mean Sokchea, in a drunken stupor, fired his gun and apparently mistakenly hit Put Samphors in the stomach. She was taken to a hospital but later died of her wounds. Mean Sokchea was detained by the police overnight but was then released, allegedly after intervention by Hing Bun Heang. Put Samphor's family received US$2,700 from Mean Sokchea, and the police told them that their daughter was shot while authorities were chasing robbers.
- On the night of January 16, 2003, a street youth named Prak Sitha was beaten to death at the Ministry of Interior (MOI) headquarters after he was arrested and detained by off-duty MOI officers on suspicion of theft. His body - bearing numerous injuries to the head, torso, arms, and legs - was dumped at a Phnom Penh pagoda the following morning by ministry officers, in violation of police regulations regarding deaths in custody. No criminal charges were filed in connection with this death. In December 2004, the case was cited by the UN secretary-general's special representative for human rights in Cambodia - who stated that Prak Sitha died at the ministry "following beatings by a known police officer" - as an example of a "consistent and continuing pattern of impunity" in Cambodia.
- On December 5, 1999, Tat Marina, age 16, was severely disfigured in an acid attack in Phnom Penh. The attack was allegedly committed by Khun Sophal, the wife of a senior government official, Svay Sitha, because she was angry her husband had a sexual relationship with Tat Marina. Neither Khun Sophal nor those suspected of being her accomplices in the attack were brought to justice. Intense media publicity compelled the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Khun Sophal for attempted murder, but the police claimed that they could not locate her, although journalists reported that she was living at home as usual.
While the Cambodian police and courts regularly allow well-connected or financially able criminal suspects to escape prosecution, the justice system is also routinely used by the government to lock up its political opponents who have committed no crimes. For example, on March 20, 2009, Tuot Saron - former Sam Rainsy Party commune chief in Kompong Thom - was convicted on charges of kidnapping and illegal confinement, although no credible evidence was put forward by the prosecution (https://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/03/22/cambodia-opposition-officials-arrested-sway-elections). On February 19, the Appeal Court upheld the murder conviction of Thach Saveth, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for the 2004 murder of a trade union official, Ros Sovannareth, despite the government's failure to produce any credible evidence against Thach Saveth.
Human Rights Watch said that the Cambodian judiciary's lack of independence will impact its ability to provide fair and impartial justice in the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders, being carried out with a mix of Cambodian and international judges.
"The political control of Cambodia's courts is the main reason so many Cambodians and observers are concerned that the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders will lack credibility," said Adams. "In this way, Cambodia's tragic history and troubled present are deeply connected."