(New York) – The Cambodian government has made no effort over the last 15 years to bring to justice those responsible for a bloody grenade attack on an opposition party rally, Human Rights Watch said today.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should complete its long-stalled investigation into the March 30, 1997 attack, which left at least 16 people dead and more than 150 injured, Human Rights Watch said. Recent reports indicate that French authorities opened a new investigation into the attack early this year.
“The substantial evidence of government involvement in this attack means a serious state investigation will never take place unless the donors, who provide almost half the national budget, demand one,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Donors who are pouring millions into the Khmer Rouge trials to end impunity should not be ignoring a more recent atrocity under the current prime minister.”
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 from the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to denounce the judiciary’s lack of independence and judicial corruption. In a well-planned attack, unidentified assailants threw four grenades into the crowd in an attempt to kill Rainsy, killing protesters and bystanders, including children, and blowing limbs off street vendors.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, in full riot gear, was present the day of the attack, the first time it appeared at a demonstration. Numerous witnesses reported that the people who had thrown the grenades subsequently ran toward 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 leaders of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Witnesses told investigators from the United Nations and the FBI that the bodyguards opened the line to allow the assailants to pass into the compound. The bodyguards then stopped at gunpoint crowd members who were pursuing the grenade-throwers and threatened to shoot those who did not retreat.
After the first grenade exploded, Rainsy’s bodyguard, Han Muny, threw himself on top of Rainsy. He took the full force of a subsequent grenade and died at the scene. Rainsy escaped with a minor leg injury.
The police, who had previously maintained a high-profile presence at opposition demonstrations in an effort to discourage them, had an unusually low profile on March 30. A large contingent was grouped around the corner, instead of inside the park itself. Other police units were in a nearby police station in full riot gear on high alert, suggesting they knew that there would be violence at the demonstration.
The March 30 demonstration was the first time the opposition KNP had received official permission from both the Interior Ministry and the Phnom Penh municipality to hold a rally after repeated refusals. The change in the government’s position fueled speculation that the demonstration was authorized so it could be attacked, Human Rights Watch said.
“The authorities have never offered a credible explanation for the deployment or actions of Hun Sen’s bodyguards at the demonstration,” Adams said.
The FBI quickly investigated the attack under a US law providing the FBI jurisdiction whenever a US citizen is injured by terrorism. Ron Abney, a US citizen, was seriously injured in the attack and had to be evacuated to Singapore to treat shrapnel wounds in his hip.
The FBI’s lead investigator interviewed soldiers and officers up the chain of command and concluded that only Hun Sen could have ordered the bodyguard unit to be deployed at the park. He has said that if he had more time, he believed he could have gathered enough evidence to present a case to prosecutors to file criminal charges. Yet in May 1997 the US ambassador at that time, Kenneth Quinn, ordered him out of the country.
An article by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Washington Post in June 1997 said: “In a classified report that could pose some awkward problems for US 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 US government sources familiar with its contents.... The bureau says its investigation is continuing, but the agents involved reportedly have complained that additional informants here are too frightened to come forward.”
On January 9, 2000, George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, 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.” However, the FBI investigation into the grenade attack has effectively been abandoned, Human Rights Watch said.
FBI evidence on Hun Sen’s role in the attack remains in files because the FBI has refused to fully cooperate with congressional inquiries or follow through on its initial investigation.
“The FBI was close to solving the case when its lead investigator was suddenly ordered out of the country,” Adams said. “The FBI should not place its ties to Hun Sen above justice and the rule of law in Cambodia, and it should finish what it started.”
Hun Sen, instead of opening a serious investigation, immediately called for the arrest of the demonstration’s organizers and instructed police not to allow them to leave the country. An Agence France-Presse accountwas published at the time.
In a June 1997 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Hing Bun Heang, the deputy commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit at the time and reportedly the person in operational control of the unit, threatened to kill journalists who alleged that Hun Sen’s bodyguards were involved.
Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit remains notorious in Cambodia for violence, corruption, and the impunity it enjoys as the de facto private army of the prime minister. A 2007 report by the nongovernmental organization Global Witness says: “The elite Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Brigade 70 [the official name of the bodyguard unit] 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.”
Hing Bun Heang has since been repeatedly promoted by the prime minister. He is now a lieutenant general and deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. The commander of Brigade 70 at the time, Huy Piseth, who admitted to the FBI that he ordered the deployment of Brigade 70 forces to the scene that day, went on to become undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Defense.
“Handing out promotions to people implicated in massacring peaceful demonstrators shows cruel disregard for the victims,” Adams said. “The message sent is that human rights abusers, no matter how egregious their acts, will not only go free, but will be rewarded.”
The 1997 attack took place at a time of extreme political tension in the country. The coalition government between the royalist Funcinpec and Hun Sen’s CPP was unravelling after armed clashes in Battambang province the previous month. 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.
A bloody coup by Hun Sen’s forces followed in July 1997, killing more than 100 and sending politicians and activists into exile in fear for their lives. Despite meticulous documentation by the United Nations of a campaign of extrajudicial killings, no one has ever been held accountable for any of the abuses related to the coup.
“The brazen 1997 attack in broad daylight ingrained impunity in Cambodia more than any other single act in the country’s post-Khmer Rouge history,” Adams said. “Within months, Hun Sen staged a coup that cemented his long-time hold on power. This is why March 30 is now called ‘Impunity Day’ by many in Cambodia.”