A senior Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge was gunned down and killed as he drove to work on Wednesday, marking the first time in post-Khmer Rouge history that a Phnom Penh judge has been murdered.
The victim, Sok Sethamony, 42, was a senior municipal judge who presided over some of the most high-profile cases in recent years, such as the trials of the suspected members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters rebel group and former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith.
The killing of Sok Sethamony was the second killing of a court official this month.
“This case is the real intentional assassination attempt—we condemn the killers and appeal to the police to arrest the killers,” said Om Yienteng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sok Sethamony, who was recently assigned to try the 60-plus men and women accused of crimes associated with the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots—was shot at 7:45 am in his red Mitsubishi Pajero on Sihanouk Boulevard. According to witnesses, he had stopped at a traffic light at the corner of Sihanouk and Street 63 when two men on a motorbike driving in the same direction approached his car.
One of the men on the motorbike pulled out a K-59 pistol and fired four times at Sok Sethamony, according to witnesses. Calmette Hospital officials said he was hit in the hand, in his left side and twice in the stomach. The killers fled the scene and are still at large.
One witness, Tim Kunaren, a 24-year-old security guard at the Tong Zing hospital near to the scene of the killing, said the assailants were wearing helmets and could not be identified.
“One stood up on the back seat and shot directly into the passenger window,” Tim Kunaren said.
Sok Sethamony was first taken to a nearby private clinic for medical treatment, but was soon transferred to Calmette Hospital. Doctors at Calmette operated on him for two hours before Sok Sethamony died from the gunshot wounds, officials at the hospital said.
“All our staff at the municipal court are feeling very sad for our colleague who was shot dead today,” said Sok Roeun, a municipal court prosecutor. “This case that occurred today is not involved with the CFF or Sam Bith’s life sentence—I personally believe it is a revenge case.”
The Ministry of Interior and the military police—both of which are investigating the killing along with the city police—have not identified any suspects in the killing or assigned a motive for the shooting.
“We are doing our best to apprehend the suspects,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, on Wednesday afternoon. “Now we have no motive for the killing.”
Commander of the military police, General Sao Sokha, said the gendarmes are investigating the killing but have not yet uncovered any suspects.
“This is very cruel, and it is a regrettable thing,” Supreme Court Judge Kong Phirun said Wednesday. “I am so frightened because we do not know when the time for our deaths will come. We don’t know when the next time of the killing will be.”
Sok Roeun agreed that the killing of Sok Sethamony, as well as the previous attacks against court officials in Phnom Penh, are threatening the country’s already-fragile judicial system.
On April 9, Appeals Court clerk Chhim Dara was shot to death in Russei Keo district in a case Deputy Police Chief El Rany described as “a revenge case.” Phnom Penh Municipal Court Prosecutor Ngeth Sarath earlier this month was also attacked and shot at by two men in Toul Sangke commune, Russei Keo district, who were allegedly trying to extort money from him.
“We still have to see how seriously the authorities will deal with [the killing of Sok Sethamony], but I think it will definitely affect the independence of the judiciary,” one international legal observer said Wednesday.
At issue, according to the legal adviser, is the interference of the judicial and city police in the court’s activities, and whether or not this most recent killing has any connection to that alleged interference.
Phnom Penh Deputy Police Commissioner Heng Pov, for example, was singled out by the legal observer and at least one municipal court judge as having either acted against direct municipal court orders in the past or had personal conflicts with the deceased judge.
“I have never had a problem with Sok Sethamony—I have never even met him,” Heng Pov, who is leading the municipal police investigation of the killing, said on Wednesday. “I have had many problems with other court officials—such as [Phnom Penh court prosecutor] Ouk Savouth because he releases suspects. But I have no fight with Sok Sethamony.”
Heng Pov characterized the killing of Sok Sethamony as a “revenge case over corruption money.”
“There are many cases that Sok Sethamony was holding that were involved with business disputes, especially with Chinese and Taiwanese businessmen,” he said.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, meanwhile, released a statement condemning the killing of Sok Sethamony, stating that the killing of a judge could “affect the feelings” of politicians during the July 27 National Elections.
(Additional reporting by David Kihara and Phann Ana)