A decade after grenades ripped through a demonstration outside the National Assembly, killing at least 16 and injuring more than 200, the failure to bring any of the perpetrators to justice continues to reflect poorly upon Cambodia’s judiciary and political climate, rights workers said.
No arrests have been made in the ongoing investigation by the government into the attack on the peaceful protest, which occurred on March 30, 1997, 10 years ago today.
“The case has not been closed,” Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said.
“The investigative committee is still working and if we find out something new we will tell the victims’ families.”
The grenades were thrown at a gathering that included activists from the Khmer Nation Party, the precursor to today’s SRP. US national Ron Abney, then-resident director of the US-based International Republican Institute, was wounded during the attack, prompting the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to come to Cambodia to investigate.
Three months after the attack, The Washington Post published a story citing sources familiar with the agency’s findings as saying that the FBI had tentatively placed responsibility for the attack on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguards.
Cambodian officials firmly deny the allegations, though the SRP has previously claimed that the FBI’s full findings were suppressed to protect Cambodian officials.
“The Cambodian authorities have never conducted a serious investigation into this attack, either despite or because of substantial evidence of government involvement,” New York-based Human Rights Watch alleged in a statement Thursday.
“This attack was intended to destroy serious political pluralism in Cambodia, and it partially succeeded. Politics in Cambodia has never fully recovered,” Rights Watch claimed.
According to Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, the attack was part of a wave of violence and intimidation in the lead-up to the national elections of 1998.
“The CPP’s continued hold on power since and its continued impunity for systematic human rights abuses is the direct result of what happened in 1997,” he wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
Teng Savorn, second deputy director general of the National Police and the head of the government committee tasked with investigating the grenade attack, said he was busy with his work Thursday and could not comment.
Khieu Sopheak said CPP officials were not involved in the attack. He added that SRP leader Sam Rainsy’s apology to Hun Sen relating to comments made about the attack “makes it clear” that the CPP was not behind it.
Sam Rainsy’s return from exile last year was partly contingent on a formal letter of apology that he submitted to Hun Sen in February 2006, expressing regret for linking him to the attack.
“I don’t want to point a finger at anyone…because I want to preserve the freedom and safety of thousands of SRP activists,” Sam Rainsy said Thursday. “I have an opinion [about the attack], but whether I express it publicly or not is another matter.”
The SRP is scheduled to hold a ceremony at 8 am today to commemorate the attack in front of the Assembly. Survivors, families of the victims, 50 monks and Sam Rainsy will be present, SRP Secretary-General Mu Sochua said.
Khieu Sopheak said that the Cambodian government closely cooperated with the FBI throughout its investigation, noting that the FBI had named a single suspect, “Brazil,” who he said was killed in the months following the attack in a car crash. Khieu Sopheak said the accident was linked to a political party that he declined to name.
“We never say no [to the FBI],” he said, adding he would welcome the FBI to come back at any time to resume its investigation.
Jeff Daigle, US Embassy spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that “the FBI investigation was inconclusive,” adding that the embassy was not aware of any plans by the FBI to reopen its investigation.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged the FBI to reopen its investigation. Sam Rainsy and Abney both issued similar calls to action last year, citing new evidence that former Phnom Penh police commissioner Heng Pov claimed to have disclosed about the case.
In August, Heng Pov released a statement linking government officials to the attack. Heng Pov, who was seeking political asylum abroad at the time, is currently serving 25 years in Prey Sar prison after convictions for murder and illegal confinement.
Abney said he doubted the US would choose to pressure the Cambodian government on the matter.
“The United States has other issues at this point that concern them…. They would not jeopardize their working relationship with Hun Sen on an issue that happened 10 years ago,” Abney claimed.
Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Democracy, said she was skeptical that further involvement by the FBI would have any real effect on the investigation.
The attack was merely “one drop of water among others in an ocean,” she said.
“It didn’t destroy Cambodian politics…but we don’t have rule of law yet, and it reflects that kind of environment.”
After a decade of deferred justice, Abney said he remains willing to wait.
“Even if one person knows the truth, there’s hope.”