Four suspects were arrested last week in connection with the October kidnapping of opposition parliamentarian Lon Phon, though authorities said Monday the mastermind was still at large.
Police continue to look for Hourth Thavuth, 32, a medical student who allegedly led the attack against Lon Phon, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Monday.
But taken into custody were Hourth Thavuth’s brother, Hourth Tharith, 23, and his mother, Yen Sipha, 52, both of whom received large sums of money following the payment of a ransom by Lon Phon’s family in early October, Khieu Sopheak said. Authorities claim the ransom paid was $140,000.
Lon Phon, who has been described as a moderate in the Sam Rainsy Party, was kidnapped by four armed men outside his central Phnom Penh home Oct 6 but released unharmed three days later after the ransom was paid.
Sam Rainsy Party officials claimed at the time the abduction was orchestrated by CPP elements in the government and continue to be skeptical that the arrests prove otherwise.
“I don’t believe these are the real kidnappers,” Sam Rainsy cabinet chief Phi Thach said Monday.
“I think the government authorities could convincingly show their good will to seek the real kidnappers.”
The two other suspects in custody are Hourth Thavuth’s girlfriend, medical student Khoun Bo Chenda Mony, 27, and Soch Sovanara, 30, who owns the house where Lon Phon was allegedly held.
Although at least three were in municipal court Monday, prosecutor Kann Chhoeun said he had done nothing with their case yet.
While sitting handcuffed outside the courtroom, both Hourth Tharith, a policeman, and Soch Sovanara denied being directly involved in the crime, which was widely condemned by all factions of the government.
Soch Sovanara said he was renting the house at the time it was used to allegedly keep Lon Phon and denied knowing either brother accused in the abduction.
Hourth Tharith admitted to taking about $3,000 from his brother to buy a motorbike, but said he wasn’t involved in the crime.
“If I did commit the kidnapping, I would have run away, for I knew the police were looking for my brother.”
He said his brother, Hourth Thavuth, used the motorbike to escape from police.
Hourth Tharith also said he occasionally drove his brother’s Toyota Camry—the type of car used to kidnap Lon Phon.
Khieu Sopheak maintained Hourth Tharith drove the car once to the house where Lon Phon allegedly was held and by doing so became an accessory to the crime.
At the courthouse, Yen Sipha also acknowledged she received money from Hourth Thavuth—approximately $5,000 that she used primarily to buy jewelry and make a down payment on a house in Meanchey district’s Chbar Ampou commune.
Yen Sipha said she was not threatened when police questioned her, but they did confiscate the jewelry.
No decision has been made yet on what to do with the house, Yen Sipha said.
Khieu Sopheak said arrest warrants have been issued for five other suspects, though he was not sure when they would be taken into custody.
All five were directly involved in the crime, he asserted, either by helping plan the kidnapping or taking part.
Two of them drove a motorcycle that followed the Camry holding Lon Phon, Khieu Sopheak claimed, while at least three guarded Lon Phon while he was captive.
But Khieu Sopheak would not comment on what he thought was the motive for the kidnapping, except to say it wasn’t politics. Shortly after the incident authorities claimed it was purely for the ransom, which originally was set at $400,000.
Though Lon Phon never has said publicly his abduction was politically motivated, the incident occurred at a time when political observers say the Sam Rainsy Party was under fairly frequent attack. The kidnapping followed incidents of alleged political intimidation in Battambang province and also the arrest of two Sam Rainsy Party members in connection with last year’s B-40 rocket attack in Siem Reap.
All these incidents, human rights workers and party officials maintain, are part of a highly organized plan to destabilize opposition to the CPP-dominated government.
Though there have been no recent reports of opposition party members being openly intimidated, both B-40 rocket attack suspects remain in custody in Phnom Penh’s military prison and are reported to in ill health.