Court Lets Fugitive Club Owner Walk Free

A deputy prosecutor at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has decided not to pursue criminal charges against a fugitive nightclub owner who police say is liable for the deaths of six people killed by a fire at the establishment on September 7.

According to police, Phon Bunthoeun, the 36-year-old owner of the Key Club in Meanchey district, went on the run shortly after the fire—which started when a smoke machine short-circuited—consumed the building’s interior and sent staff and patrons scrambling for a single emergency exit.

Two waitresses and three teenage girls died in the blaze, while a security guard succumbed to serious burns a week later.

It was the second deadly fire at the Key Club in less than two years. In November 2013, three people were killed when sparks from a welder ignited a sofa, but the club was allowed to remain open. In both cases, police blamed a lack of exits for the deaths.

While eluding police in the weeks following the latest fire, Mr. Bunthoeun dispatched proxies to meet with the victims’ families and offer them compensation in the hope that they would withdraw their initial complaints against him.

But negotiations broke down, and on September 29, the families—along with another security guard who remains in treatment for severe burns—lodged lawsuits against the club owner at the municipal court, according to deputy Meanchey district police chief Meng Vemeandara.

On Wednesday, however, Kham Sophary, a deputy prosecutor at the court who previously dismissed the fire as “an act of god,” said the families had taken compensation from a representative of Mr. Bunthoeun at the district police station and withdrawn their lawsuits.

Mr. Sophary said he could not remember when the families accepted the money or withdrew their complaints, but that the surviving security guard, Khom Channuth, withdrew his own lawsuit just Wednesday, having accepted $5,000 in compensation.

“I don’t know how much money the victims’ families got…because the families compromised with [the help of] police,” he said. “Now, I have all of the documents from the victims’ families requesting to drop their complaints.”

“Because a compromise was reached between the club’s representative and the victims’ families, the court will close this case,” the deputy prosecutor added. “The court has no cause to charge the club owner because this [fire] was an accident.”

However, Mr. Vemeandara, the deputy district police chief, disputed Mr. Sophary’s version of events Wednesday and said police still considered Mr. Bunthoeun a wanted man.

“If the victims’ families and the club’s representative compromised at the police station, I might know about it,” he said drily. “We tried to solve the problem here, but a compromise was not reached.”

Mr. Vemeandara said police had suspended their search for Mr. Bunthoeun when the families sued him last month, leaving the case in the court’s hands.

“We will search for and arrest the club owner when the court issues a warrant for detention,” he said.

Doung Sreymom, the mother of 18-year-old Sao Mesa, who was killed in the fire along with two friends, declined to answer questions about the case, despite having spoken openly about her attempts to negotiate with Mr. Bunthoeun in the past.

“If you want to know anything about this accident, please call police,” she said. “I don’t know anything.”

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