The commander of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit denied on Tuesday that three soldiers who served a year in prison for beating opposition lawmakers ever belonged to the unit, despite their association being widely discussed publicly and in court.
“They are not involved with the bodyguard unit,” said Hing Bun Heang, head of the unit, when asked about the officers. “Sorry, they aren’t involved with me,” he added, declining to comment further.
Chay Sarith, 33, Mao Hoeun, 34, and Suth Vanny, 45, admitted in court to attacking CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea outside the National Assembly in October last year.
During their trial, Mr. Hoeun testified that he had gone to a protest outside the Assembly to “collect information” as a member of the bodyguard unit’s “intelligence group,” though he refused to say who gave the order or identify his commanding officers.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the case, based on interviews with several sources, said the attack was part of a bodyguard unit operation of nearly 200 men posted outside the National Assembly in plain clothes.
After the officers’ release from prison on Friday, a spokesman for the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, Heng Dalin, said he did not know whether the men would be returning to the force.
On Tuesday, however, Defense Ministry officials denied their previous employment in the unit, with Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat only confirming that they had been a part of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
“I don’t know where are they now. This is their private thing,” General Sucheat said.
Nevertheless, the ministry’s disciplinary council was considering whether the men should be reinstated, as “they’ve already served their sentences,” he said. “We’re going to examine their conduct and consider what we do next.”
HRW’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, said there was no doubt that the men were part of Mr. Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, calling General Bun Heang “a liar.”
“Human Rights Watch saw official secret documents confirming their membership in the unit, and the three men also admitted it in court,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“I assume that Hing Bun Heang has been immune from accountability for so long that he foolishly thinks if he says it, then it must be true—but too bad for him that the rest of us live in a world based on facts and evidence and are prepared to call him on it,” he added.
Mr. Saphea, one of the CNRP lawmakers beaten in the attack, said there should be no consideration of allowing the men to return to service.
“Normally, in a country that has the rule of law, people or officials who commit serious offenses against their nation must get serious punishment,” Mr. Saphea said.
“Especially if they are from the armed forces, they must be fired for lacking the discipline and morals expected from the national force.”
(Additional reporting by Michael Dickison)