(New York) - The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should revive its investigation into the deadly 1997 grenade attack on an opposition party rally in Phnom Penh that left at least 16 dead and more than 150 wounded, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Cambodian government has failed to take any steps to investigate or hold perpetrators accountable, despite strong evidence of complicity by Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit in the attack. The FBI undertook an investigation into the grenade attack because a US citizen, Ron Abney, was among those wounded.
"The United States claims that human rights and the rule of law are primary policy goals in Cambodia, yet it withdrew the FBI just when it was close to solving the case and has done nothing for over a decade to resolve it," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This attack has cast a shadow over Cambodia that will only be lifted when the perpetrators are brought to justice."
In a well-planned attack on March 30, 1997, four grenades were thrown into a crowd of approximately 200 supporters of the opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had gathered to protest judicial corruption. At least 16 protesters and bystanders were killed, including children, with limbs torn off of nearby street vendors.
Members of the personal bodyguard unit for Hun Sen, then the co-prime minister, were deployed in full riot gear at the rally. They opened their lines and allowed the grenade throwers to escape, then threatened to shoot people trying to pursue them.
Instead of investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of the grisly attack, Hun Sen announced that the demonstration's organizers should be arrested. In 2009, Hun Sen gave high-level promotions to two military officials linked to the grenade attack, Hing Bunheang, deputy commander of Hun Sen's bodyguard unit at the time of the attack, and Huy Piseth, who ordered the deployment of the unit to the demonstration that day.
"The Cambodian government should be investigating those implicated in the attack, not promoting them," Adams said. "Since the UN peacekeeping mission arrived in 1992, well over 300 people have died in political attacks, yet not one government or military official has been held to account. Cambodia is the textbook case of impunity for human rights abusers."
Human Rights Watch said that US assistance to military units linked to the grenade attack and other serious abuses compounds Cambodia's deeply entrenched culture of impunity for human rights violators.
Since 2006, the United States has provided more than $4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to Cambodia. US aid includes counter-terrorism training to personnel from Hun Sen's bodyguard unit and Brigade 70, who have been moved to a special anti-terrorist unit that was created in January 2008. US training has also been provided to members of Airborne Brigade 911, which has been implicated in well-documented violations, including arbitrary detentions, killings and other attacks, torture, and summary executions.
"Rather than continuing the FBI probe into the killings, the US has channelled military aid to units linked to the attack and other recent serious abuses," said Adams. "The US is sending mixed signals about its commitment to the human rights of the Cambodian people."