3 Years On, Reporter’s Murder Still Unsolved

On a warm evening three years ago today, Khim Sambor and his son Khat Sarinpheata had just finished exercising at Olympic Sta­dium. They were returning home by motorbike on a busy Moni­reth Boulevard when they were overtaken by two men on another motorbike, who fired shots at Khim Sam­bor from a K-59 handgun.

Khim Sambor, 47, was shot in the back and abdomen, and died on the spot. The gunmen started to speed away. But when they realized that Mr Sambor’s son was uninjured, they turned back and proceeded to shoot Khat Sa­rinpheata, 21, in the chest, puncturing his lung.

As he waited for help at the crime scene, witnesses heard Khat Sarinpheata calling out, saying that the shooting was “for revenge.” He would die early the next morning.

Father and son were cremated two days after the shooting.

The murder of Khim Sambor, a reporter for Moneaksekar Khmer, a pro-opposition party newspaper, occurred just a few weeks before the 2008 national elections and a month after the newspaper’s editor, Dam Sith, was arrested for an article re­porting opposition allegations against Foreign Minister Hor Namhong concerning the Khmer Rouge regime.

National military police spokes­man Kheng Tito said an investigation into the double murder was ongoing.

“The murder case is not finished yet. Police will continue to investigate it as long as the [municipal] court does not call the investigation off,” he said.

Reporters Without Borders released a statement shortly after the killings in 2008 that noted that Khim Sambor had written about corruption cases allegedly involving high-ranking officials and concluded that the murder was likely political in nature.

Dam Sith, publisher of Moneaksekar Khmer, still believes that theory to this day.

In an article published in newspaper’s the June 28-29 edition, Khim Sambor alleged that a senior and powerful official in the National Police had ordered the detention of a casino manager in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet City. According to the story, the manager was detained after he denied thousands of dollars in credit to the unnamed police official, who had accrued a heavy gambling debt.

“The casino has never before refused his borrowing,” Khim Sambor wrote in the article, quoting an unnamed source.

“But the lending was made once and twice already. Yet he still lost all the time, and he continued to ask for more lending. The casino manager refused to lend him more because the casino owner was not in the country. When that manager refused to lend him more money, that powerful person had an angry outburst and ordered the arrest of the manager.”

Mr Sith said Friday that he believed local authorities had no real intention of finding out who was responsible for the murder of the journalist and his son. He compared the investigation to diplomacy–putting on a show for the sake of appearance, but not acting for fear of rocking the boat.

“I am very regretful for local authorities and [the US Federal Bureau of Investigation] who were mandated to find the justice but found out nothing,” Mr Sith said.

In August after the shooting, the government accepted an offer from the FBI, which had recently opened an outpost at the US Embassy, to assist the national and municipal police in the murder investigation. The FBI provided a forensic artist and two investigators.

The forensic artist spent two weeks compiling sketches of the shooting suspects that were based on descriptions given by witnesses to the killings. Those drawings and findings from the investigation were left with local police, who at the time said they had plans to release the drawings to the public and broadcast them on TV. Mr Tito, of the military police, was unaware of the sketches and was not sure if they were ever released.

The FBI field office referred questions to US Embassy spokesman Mark Wenig, who in turn referred questions to the national police. Kirth Chantharith, the national police spokesman, was unaware of the status of the Khim Sambor case.

According to declassified FBI records, Cambodian police in 1997 were reluctant to release composite FBI sketches generated of suspects in a grenade attack that year. An FBI investigator was informed of death threats around the time of their publication in local newspapers.

Mr Sith declined to reveal the identity of the unnamed police official in Khim Sambor’s article printed in June 28-29 edition of Moneaksekar Khmer out of concern for possible retribution.

“Although the murderer or mastermind maybe be dead or alive, the investigation should reveal the truth about who is responsible and why they killed Mr Sambor,” Mr Sith said. “Not only the killing of Mr Sambor but the murders of many journalists, such as Nun Chan and Thun Bunly, have never been solved.”

Nun Chan and Thun Bunly were both also killed in September 1994 and May 1996 respectively by pairs of gunmen in the streets of Phnom Penh. Not including Khim Sambor, none of the cases of the 11 journalists murdered since Cambodia’s first national elections in 1993 have been solved.

In September 2008, the municipal police chief, Touch Naruth, said the deaths of the journalist and his son were not in fact politically motivated but instead were motivated by revenge and the primary target was the son, not the father. A relative dismissed this theory at the time.

But Mr Naruth said his findings were backed up by the FBI and based on an initial investigation that purportedly established that Khat Sarinpheata told a relative that he had been targeted for something he did not elaborate on.

Mr Naruth yesterday declined to comment on the unsolved crime.

Khim Sambor’s widow and surviving children moved to Sweden shortly after the murders and subsequently received political asylum there. They could not be contacted for this article.

Speaking last year, Khat Sarinpheata’s younger brother, Khim Chankreusna, said: “I am sorry. I do not want to talk about this. It is useless and just makes me suffer more.”

Khim Sambor’s younger brother Khim Khat Laurent, 41, said on Thursday that he and his family have heard nothing about the result of the investigation into the killing of their loved ones.

“It is quiet. It looks like searching for a needle at bottom of the sea,” Mr Khat Laurent said. “To this day [no authorities] are still thinking about this case,” adding that he’s given up faith in ever finding justice: “There is no official that I could believe in. Instead, I would rather believe in the sky and earth.”

Mr Khat Laurent said that his mother was planning a small Buddhist ceremony today, inviting a few monks and friends to commemorate the three-year anniversary of the killing of the journalist and his son.

   (Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng and Michael Philips)

 

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