Doubts Linger in Kompong Speu Confession

samraong tong district, Kom­pong Speu province – Seventeen days ago, lacerations covered Him Vuthea’s arms and face. They were cuts, he said at the time, that he received when he dived into some dry, brittle bushes here to avoid the gun fight that had erupted around him.

The shots, he claimed, came from two assassins who were trying to kill his uncle, Tit Keo Monyroath, a Sam Rainsy Party second deputy commune chief from Sambo commune in Sam­raong Tong.

Even though he said his uncle defended himself by firing his own AK-47 rifle at the alleged assailants, the short battle ended with his uncle fatally shot.

The lacerations Him Vuthea received when he jumped into the brush have healed in the two weeks since the shooting incident.

And the story he told at the time has also vanished, replaced by an open confession that he was the one who shot his uncle to death.

“At the beginning, I lied be­cause I was afraid of being thrown into prison,” Him Vuthea said, interviewed on Monday at the Kompong Speu provincial prison.

But several family members, a lawyer representing him and human rights officials dispute Him Vuthea’s confession, saying that police and Ministry of Interior officials likely coerced Him Vuthea into admitting to the killing.

“I heard police threaten [Him Vuthea],” said Him Thavath, the 23-year-old brother of Him Vuthea, on Monday.

Him Thavath, who drove his brother to the Kompong Speu provincial police station to be questioned on Nov 21, said he overheard much of the police interrogation and concluded that the authorities had intimidated his brother into admitting that he killed Tit Keo Monyroath, the highest-ranking opposition official to be killed since the Feb 3 commune elections.

“I heard the police say loudly [to Him Vuthea], ‘You must confess and say that the gun went off accidentally—if you don’t, you will get punished more severely,’” Him Thavath said on Mon­day.

Him Thavath said he overheard most of the three-hour questioning session through a large window at the police station.

Confessions of suspects are not unusual in serious criminal cases, rights workers say. A 2000 Lic­adho report showed that out of more than 2,000 prison inmates interviewed, 90 percent had confessed to police.

While no exact figures are available for the number of prisoners who were tortured or coerced into giving confessions, Licadho states that an estimated 20 percent were tortured by police. Winning confessions is a major reason for intimidating and torturing inmates, Licadho states.

“[Intimidating suspects into confessing] is extremely common,” said one Licadho official on Tuesday.

Ministry of Interior officials and Kompong Speu police denied allegations that they forced Him Vuthea to admit to killing Tit Keo Monyroath.

“Police did not coerce [Him Vuthea] into confessing and he did not confess to police—he confessed in front of the investigating judge,” said Chea Vuth, the provincial deputy police chief, on Tuesday. “When we arrested him and questioned him, he declined to confess.”

A Ministry of Interior official on Tuesday declined to comment on Him Vuthea’s admission of guilt and referred to a Nov 23 Ministry of Interior statement that said after the ministry conducted a ballistics test on the bullet found in Tit Keo Monyroath, it determined that Him Vuthea was the killer.

“No one ever coerced me into confessing,” Him Vuthea claimed from Kompong Speu prison.

Despite his assertion that he accidentally shot and killed Tit Keo Monyroath on Nov 16, his statements have some inconsistencies.

Him Vuthea on Monday said that he was a passenger on the motorcycle that his uncle was driving through Sambo commune on the night of the incident. The road was sandy, which caused the motorcycle to swerve in the road, he said.

Because Him Vuthea lost his balance on the back of the motorcycle, he used his left arm to grab onto his uncle and almost dropped the AK-47 rifle he was holding by the barrel with his right hand, he said. The gun fired when he tried to get a better grip on it, hitting his uncle once, he said.

However, the body of Tit Keo Monyroath, examined by re­porters on Nov 17, showed two bullet wounds on the inside of the buttocks—which Tit Keo Mony­roath would have been sitting on.

Also, the wounds showed no dark marks consistent with muzzle or flash burn from a gunshot at close range.

The scene of the shooting was littered with more than a dozen bullet casings—in two separate piles on either side of the road—supporting Him Vuthea’s first explanation that there had been an exchange of gunfire between at least two people.

Authorities say Him Vuthea fired several shots shortly after his uncle was killed—a claim backed up by Him Vuthea—and that another relative also fired a rifle in anger following the killing.

“All of [my confession] is true,” Him Vuthea maintained on Monday as he wept openly. He has been charged with unintentionally killing Tit Keo Mony­roath.

If convicted, he could spend three years in prison, but most likely will get a lesser sentence for admitting to the crime, legal experts said.

The police have stopped searching for any other suspects in the killing, authorities say.

 

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