(New York, March 29, 2017) – The Cambodian government has shielded and promoted those implicated in the deadly grenade attack on an opposition party rally 20 years ago that left at least 16 people dead and more than 150 injured, Human Rights Watch said today. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which became involved because an American citizen, Ron Abney, was severely injured, should complete its long-stalled investigation into the March 30, 1997 attack against the opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Portraits of victims are displayed at a memorial for victims of a grenade attack, which took place near Cambodia's National Assembly on March 30, 1997.

© 2006 Reuters

“Compelling evidence of the involvement of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit in this atrocity means a serious domestic investigation never has – and never will – take place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The United Nations and Cambodia’s donors, who provide a large percentage of the national budget, should demand justice for victims for a crime that helped derail Cambodia’s democratic transition.”

On March 30, 1997, a crowd of approximately 200 supporters of the opposition Khmer Nation Party (KNP), led by Rainsy, a former finance minister, 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-coordinated 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. 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 that day. A large contingent was grouped around the corner, instead of inside the park itself. Other police units were at a nearby police station in full riot gear on high alert, an unusual precaution that suggested they knew that there would be violence at the demonstration. However, the army’s Brigade 70, Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, was at the park in full riot gear. It was the first time it had appeared at an opposition 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. At gunpoint, the bodyguards then stopped members of the crowd who were pursuing the grenade-throwers and threatened to shoot those who did not retreat.

Instead of opening a serious investigation, Hun Sen immediately called for the arrest of the demonstration’s organizers and instructed police not to allow them to leave the country. “We had permission, how can we be blamed for these deaths?” Rainsy said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. “It is very cynical.”

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. “Publish this: tell them that I want to kill them… publish it, say that I, chief of the bodyguards, have said this. I want to kill… I am so angry.”

The March 30 demonstration was the first time the opposition had received official permission from both the Interior Ministry and the Phnom Penh municipality to hold a rally after repeated refusals.

“The unprecedented government approval of the protest fueled speculation that the demonstration was authorized so it could be attacked,” Adams said. “The authorities have never offered a credible explanation for the deployment of the bodyguards or their actions in allowing the grenade throwers to escape.”

The FBI’s lead investigator interviewed soldiers and officers up the chain of command. The commander of Brigade 70 at the time, Huy Piseth, admitted to the FBI that he ordered the deployment of Brigade 70 forces to the scene that day. The FBI investigator concluded that only Hun Sen could have ordered the bodyguard unit to the park and has said that if he had more time he believes 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.

R. Jeffrey Smith wrote in the Washington Post in June 1997: “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 its files, but 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 US shouldn’t place its ties to an autocrat like Hun Sen over justice and the rule of law in Cambodia, and should instead direct the FBI to finish what it started.”

Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit remains notorious in Cambodia for violence, corruption, and the impunity it enjoys as the prime minister’s de facto private army. 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.”

Since then, Hun Sen has promoted Hing Bun Heang to the position of deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Huy Piseth, the former Brigade 70 commander, went on to become undersecretary of state in the Defense Ministry. In 2015, both were appointed to the ruling party’s Central Committee. “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 party 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 UN of a campaign of extrajudicial killings, no one has ever been held accountable for any of the abuses related to the coup.

“The grenade attack has cast a long shadow over Cambodian politics that remains today,” Adams said. “Within months, Hun Sen staged a coup that cemented his longtime hold on power, which has now lasted more than 32 years, and has involved continued physical attacks and trumped-up prosecutions against the opposition. Those responsible for the grenade attack have gotten away with murder, which is why March 30 is now called ‘Impunity Day’ by many in Cambodia.”