A US national wounded in the 1997 grenade attack has decided to withdraw his lawsuit in the US against the prime minister, which had alleged that Hun Sen and his bodyguard unit were linked to the attack.
Ron Abney, a vociferous critic of Hun Sen who was country director of the International Republican Institute in 1997, told friends and colleagues that he felt pressured to drop the suit, which was filed in a New York district court in September.
“It is very disheartening to take this action but I feel under the present conditions that exist in Cambodia presently I must do so,” Abney wrote in an e-mail sent Tuesday and obtained Thursday.
“This is a sad day for me as we have fought for so long to get the truth out about the 1997 grenade attack,” Abney wrote. “I know what happened that day and so does the [US] Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
He added that the move was partly intended to help protect opposition officials and rights workers from being detained in the current political climate.
“Because of these recent events in Cambodia and my information that leaders of the opposition and human rights community could be under constant fear of arrest or worse if we continue, I will not proceed in this action and potentially cause these events to occur,” he wrote.
Abney was among more than 120 people who were wounded in March 1997 when four grenades were thrown into a peaceful demonstration led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy in front of the National Assembly building. More than a dozen people were killed.
Abney, Sam Rainsy and two others filed the lawsuit under two US laws while Hun Sen was in New York to address the UN General Assembly last year.
The Alien Tort Claims Act allows foreign nationals to sue in the US for any violation of the “laws of nations,” while the Torture Victims Protection Act allows anyone to sue those responsible for torturing them.
In 1997, FBI agents investigating the attack tentatively pointed the finger at Hun Sen’s personal bodyguards, in a confidential report that was leaked to the Washington Post newspaper.
A 1998 report released publicly was inconclusive and did not lay blame on any one group.
On Feb 3, Cambodian television stations broadcast a conciliatory letter from Sam Rainsy to Hun Sen, in which the opposition leader said he regretted linking him to the grenade attack.
Hun Sen, who in December successfully sued Sam Rainsy for defamation over his allegations, then helped secure a pardon for the opposition leader, allowing him to return to the country. Sam Rainsy is expected to return today.
Some observers said they understood the logic of dropping the lawsuits relating to the attack but did not necessarily approve.
“I don’t call on Sam Rainsy to explain,” Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said on Thursday.
“But it will be too hard for Sam Rainsy if he is questioned by family members whose relatives were killed in the grenade attack. Those people would ask Sam Rainsy where justice is for them,” he said.
Eng Chhay Eang, an opposition lawmaker, said Sam Rainsy has lost no credibility, adding that the party will continue to urge officials to find those who planned and carried out the attack. “We will find justice for the victims,” Eng Chhay Eang maintained.
Acting opposition party president Kong Korm refused to comment and referred all comments to Sam Rainsy, who did not respond to e-mails on Thursday.
Alex Sutton, resident program director for the IRI, said his organization is no longer involved with Abney’s lawsuit.
“It’s not an issue that IRI is connected to,” Sutton said. “There is little, if any, involvement or discussion,” he added.
Khieu Kanharith, government spokesman and Minister of Information, would not comment on the dropped lawsuits, except to say that he could not explain it.