Grenade Attack Remembered Amid Promised Reform

Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha joined dozens of monks and hundreds of supporters on Monday for a Pchum Ben ceremony at the memorial stupa in Phnom Penh honoring the 16 people who were killed by a grenade attack on an opposition rally in 1997.

“We meet here today to offer food to the spirits of ancestors and patriots who resisted in the name of freedom. We continue to demand justice, especially for the heroic demonstrators who died during the grenade attack,” Mr. Rainsy said.

A Buddhist layman arranges offerings of incense on Monday at the memorial stupa in Phnom Penh for the victims of the 1997 grenade attack. Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, who organized the ceremony ahead of the Pchum Ben festival, called for long-delayed justice for the more than one dozen killed and 100 injured in the still unsolved atrocity. (Kevin Doyle/The Cambodia Daily)
A Buddhist layman arranges offerings of incense on Monday at the memorial stupa in Phnom Penh for the victims of the 1997 grenade attack. Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, who organized the ceremony ahead of the Pchum Ben festival, called for long-delayed justice for the more than one dozen killed and 100 injured in the still unsolved atrocity. (Kevin Doyle/The Cambodia Daily)

If there has been a defining moment in the political career of Mr. Rainsy, it was surviving the grenade attack. Hundreds of supporters were injured. A bodyguard gave his own life protecting Mr. Rainsy from the blast.

Mr. Rainsy once sought to bring a case against Prime Min­ister Hun Sen in a U.S. court over his alleged involvement in the attack. But he dropped the case, much to criticism by supporters, as part of a deal with the government in 2005 that allowed Mr. Rainsy to return to the country from an earlier, self-imposed exile af­ter charges against him were dropped in a Cambodian court.

While the stupa is now a rallying point for the opposition, it is also a reminder of a culture of impunity within Cambodia’s courts that has left dozens of violent crimes—many of them believed to have been politically motivated—poorly investigated and unpunished.

Following its worst showing at the ballot box since 1998 in July’s national election, along with the emergence of a popular and united opposition party in the CNRP, Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP has been talking reform since it pushed ahead with the formation of a new government last week.

In an epic six-hour speech on Wednesday, Mr. Hun Sen prom­ised a more transparent and ac­countable government, and said that serious reform of the judiciary was long overdue.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Friday likewise emphasized the need for reform, telling government officials at a ceremony: “We need to change the form of management and leadership.”

Though legal experts said they were optimistic that there will be some improvements in the country’s judiciary in the coming years as the CPP seeks to build more public trust to stave off future election de­feats, they also said that demands for justice for crimes committed during the CPP’s past 20 years in power were unlikely to be met.

“The government has made absolutely no effort to bring perpetrators [of the 1997 grenade attack] to justice, so I doubt they will do anything in the next five years,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Mr. Virak added that although it would be ideal to revisit high-profile crimes to secure public trust in the judiciary, the CPP was unlikely to sign on to reforms that allow for a fully independent judiciary that could reopen cases that some might want to keep closed.

“I think there needs to be…compromise because otherwise the CPP will never reform the judiciary. [Compromise will have to be made] not only on the investigation of past crimes. The CPP may want a more effective and efficient judiciary, but not a completely independent judiciary,” he said.

Sam Pracheameanit, chief of cabinet for the Ministry of Justice, said that the investigation into the grenade attack was “ongoing,” and that as part of its reform mandate, the ministry would push the courts to find justice for victims of other violent crimes that have gone unpunished.

“We have not closed the [grenade attack] case because investigations are continuing in order to find the perpetrators,” he claimed.

“The Ministry of Justice is making efforts to push the courts to find justice for the victims [of previous crimes]. This is the reform of the Ministry of Justice.”

Should the government revisit violent crimes—with possible political mo­tives—that have gone largely un­prosecuted over the past two decades, it would find a long list of cases.

In February 2003, Om Radsa­dy, a well-respected politician and leading member of Funcinpec, was approached by an assailant and shot in front of other party members at a restaurant. In an apparent attempt to make the shooting look like a robbery, the killer first fled then, as a afterthought, returned to take Mr. Radsady’s inexpensive phone before fleeing. Mr. Radsady died later in hospital.

The police arrested two members of the elite 911 paratrooper commandoes for the killing. The two said they killed the senior royalist party adviser for his telephone, which they said they later threw in the Tonle Bassac River. They were quickly tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Royalist party members did not believe the robbery story, claiming the killing was political. As early as March 2003, the Ministry of Interior admitted that it did not believe that theft was the motive for the killing. It formed a committee to investigate, but no progress has been made in the case.

In January 2004, prominent union leader Chea Vichea was shot in broad daylight outside a newspaper stand in Phnom Penh. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were wrongfully sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime, were acquitted of the charges last week. The actual killer of Chea Vichea remains at large.

In May that year, another leader of the Free Trade Union (FTU), Ros Sovannareth, was gunned down while riding on his motorcycle. In February 2007, Hy Buthy, yet another union leader with the FTU, was shot dead while on the way home from a night shift at the Suntex factory in Phnom Penh. As with the killing of Chea Vichea, two men on a motorbike committed both of these murders, and the perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

In July 2008, journalist Khim Sambo and his son were shot dead in the early evening on a busy street after exercising at Olympic Stadium. Khim Sambo worked for the opposition-aligned Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper, writing about corruption, land-grabbing and political intrigue. The two men on a motorcycle who killed Khim Sambo and his son remain at large.

Heng Serei Oudom, a journalist for the Vorakchun Khmer news­paper, was killed in Septem­ber 2012 shortly after writing articles exposing involvement of military police officials in illegal logging. He became the 11th journalist to be killed since 1994. Not one killer of a journalist has ever been prosecuted in Cambodia.

Also last year, leading environmental activist Chut Wutty was fatally shot in Koh Kong province after being stopped by military police and soldiers working as private security personnel for a hydro-power dam project. After a widely criticized investigation into the murder, one security guard spent a total of six months in prison for killing military police officer In Rathana, who allegedly shot Chut Wutty before being shot himself.

With so many cases left unresolved, opposition lawmaker Mu So­chua said that reforms of the judiciary must include the possibility that vic­tims of these crimes and their fam­ilies can request that further in­vestigations into their cases be conducted.

“Unless there are in-depth reforms there is no chance at all to go back to the past. One of the reasons we need to go back to the past is because the crimes are targeted toward specific individuals, for example Chea Vichea and even with the grenade attack, the target was very clear,” she said.

“It’s not going to be part of the negotiations [to break the current political impasse], but once re­forms are underway and we have an independent judiciary…those who have survived can ask for the case to be reopened,” she said.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, said the possibility of revisiting these cases would hinder any possibility of real reform within the judiciary.

“Sometimes if the case is political, I think that we should focus on the future rather than digging up problems from the past. Otherwise, there cannot be reform,” he added.

However, Long Panhavuth, an of­ficer with the Cambodian Justice Ini­tiative, said that for “crimes that are systematic,” such as the grenade attack and murder of union leaders, setting up special fact-finding missions may help bring public closure to the crimes, and greater faith in the independence of the judiciary.

“I would say it is very important that mass crimes, like the grenade attack in 1997, [be investigated by] a sort of fact-finding mission or truth missions,” he said, noting that the statute of limitations for a felony crime in Cambodia is 10 years, which would preclude criminal prosecution in some cases.

“In order to promote public confidence you need to let people talk about and criticize what is going on,” he said, adding that a more important reform would be repealing laws that prevent citizens from criticizing legal officers and their decisions.

Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst and legal professor, said that the government must first establish a more independent judiciary, at which point it will be incumbent upon the courts to investigate past cases in which justice has been elusive.

“Not only the CPP, but together we need to address our past and conduct proper investigations into the crimes that have been committed since 1993,” he said.

“We should not condone im-punity,” Mr. Mong Hay said.

“I think that we have the duty to find justice for the dead. And perhaps justice for the dead would reinforce justice for the living,” he added.

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