Witness, Court At Odds Over Account of Fatal Crash

Takhmao City, Kandal Province – The provincial court’s account on Wednesday of a key witness’s recollection of a fatal car crash that effectively absolves a senior government official directly contradicted what the witness himself claims he told the court.

On April 12, Nuon Someth, an undersecretary of state at the Tourism Ministry and former deputy governor of Phnom Penh, was detained by police in Kandal province after the SUV he was driving along National Road 1 collided with a motorbike heading in the opposite direction. The driver of the motorbike, Mith Sothea, died at the scene; his wife, Khorn Yeth, died 17 days later from injuries sustained in the crash.

Nuon Someth, an undersecretary of state at the Tourism Ministry, speaks with a reporter outside the Kandal Provincial Court on Wednesday after being questioned about his role in a fatal traffic accident in April. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Nuon Someth, an undersecretary of state at the Tourism Ministry, speaks with a reporter outside the Kandal Provincial Court on Wednesday after being questioned about his role in a fatal traffic accident in April. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

On orders from provincial court prosecutor Lim Sokuntha, police released Mr. Someth the evening of the crash. Mr. Sokuntha has said he let Mr. Someth go because the official asked to be released, because he agreed to pay the victims’ family $5,500, and because the police determined that he was not at fault.

Police, citing alleged witness accounts, said Mr. Someth’s Toyota Land Cruiser was first clipped by an oncoming truck, causing the official to lose control and crash into the motorbike.

On May 12, however, the only witness identified by police, Tat Saing, told reporters what he said he had told investigators: that he did not see the crash, but heard only one collision—not two.

After being questioned by deputy prosecutor Sam Rithyveasna on Wednesday, Mr. Saing said he gave the exact same report.

“I did not see the truck hit the car. I just heard the sound of a crash,” said Mr. Saing, who had been working at his motorbike repair shop along the road when the accident occurred. He said he only saw a truck driving away from the scene after looking up.

Mr. Rithyveasna, however, said Mr. Saing had told him that he did see the crash. “The witness answered that he saw the truck hit the car of His Excellency Nuon Someth and that that caused his car to crash into the motorbike,” he said.

The deputy prosecutor declined to comment on the fact that Mr. Saing’s telling in court and his account to reporters were completely different. “If His Excellency Nuon Someth’s car was hit by a truck, we will consider whether he made a mistake or whether he was driving carelessly,” he said.

Mr. Rithyveasna questioned Mr. Someth later in the day but declined to comment when reached afterward.

The court will now decide whether to lay preliminary charges against Mr. Someth and send the case to an investigating judge, or to drop it entirely.

While leaving the courthouse on Wednesday, Mr. Someth said he was the victim.

“I am a victim, and I came in accordance with court procedure,” he said before rushing off.

Mith Sothea’s nephew, Sarom Sokha, who negotiated the payout with Mr. Someth on the day of the crash, was also questioned on Wednesday. He said the deputy prosecutor only wanted to make sure that he was not pressing charges, as per his agreement with Mr. Someth.

“I just replied that I already withdrew the complaint and wanted to finish with this because we already received the compensation,” he said.

Mr. Sothea said he found it hard to believe that Mr. Someth’s SUV was not knocked completely off the road after colliding with a truck.

Police claim that witnesses besides Mr. Saing also said Mr. Someth’s SUV was first hit by a truck—which supposedly fled the scene and has never been found—but have refused to give their names.

However, three witnesses who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity in April all said Mr. Someth’s SUV was not struck by a truck and was driving in the wrong lane when it crashed head-on into the motorbike.

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