A manhunt is under way for the capture of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew, Nhim Sophea, 22, after an arrest warrant was issued for his alleged involvement in the shooting of passers-by following a car crash in Phnom Penh on Monday night, officials said Friday.
Coconut vendor Long Mao, 19, was killed and his brother Long Lay, 20, remains in a coma after a car, traveling in a four-vehicle convoy, smashed into a parked truck on Sihanouk Boulevard near the Olympic Stadium.
After the crash, a 40-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman were shot dead when a man traveling in the convoy opened fire on curious onlookers who had gathered around the scene of the accident. A third person was wounded by the gunfire.
The gang sped away after freeing the member of their group from his wrecked vehicle. Twelve AK-47 cartridges were later found by police.
A senior municipal court official said Friday that the court received approval from a top government leader to arrest the suspected shooter: Nhim Sophea, a nephew of Hun Sen.
“We are hotly working on this case. I will not retreat,” said the court official who requested anonymity because of fears for his security. “If police cannot arrest him I will not be able to stay in my home. I will have to escape,” he added.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith confirmed that an arrest warrant has been issued for Nhim Sophea, the son of Hun Sen’s sister who is married to Nhim Chantara, former ambassador to Burma and now undersecretary of state at the Foreign Ministry.
“He is the one who was shooting,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Hun Sen has long stated that the sons of high-ranking officials would not be protected from the law, Khieu Kanharith said. “Not only this time, but since before the last time,[Hun Sen] said this.”
Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov said his officers came close to capturing the premier’s nephew Friday morning at a city guest house, but the suspect managed to escape.
“He is the hitman. He escaped arrest a moment before officers arrived,” said Heng Pov, adding that some of the suspects may have already left the country.
Sok Roeun, deputy prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said Wednesday that arrest warrants were issued for five suspects involved in the car crash and shooting of bystanders.
Than Chamroeun, 23, the only member of the gang apprehended, was charged with traffic violations and intentional killing. The four other suspects were named as Seng Savanara; Nhim Sophea; Pov Hun; and a man named Pov who goes by the name “Moung,” Sok Roeun said.
Sok Roeun said the suspected shooter was Nhim Sophea; however, court, government and law enforcement officials refused before Friday to discuss the family connections of any of the suspects.
The latest incident is just one of several in recent years involving Hun Sen’s nephews.
In July 1999, nephew Nhim Pisey—a brother of Nhim Sophea —was charged with illegal weapons use and causing injury to two people after he was involved in a dispute outside a night club. Hun Sen said at the time: “As an uncle I can visit him in jail, but letting him free from the court charges and punishment is unacceptable.”
In February 2000, another nephew, Hun Chea, the son of Hun Sen’s older brother Hun San, was arrested with six others after shooting erupted at a Phnom Penh night club. Hun Sen said the following day: “Do not be confused, every son, whoever’s son, even my son, if they commit wrongdoing, they must be punished by the law.”
Four days later, Hun Chea and the six others suspects—the sons of officials—were released on bail and on guarantees of good behavior from their parents.
In December 2000, police accused Hun Sen’s nephew Nhim Pov—who some sources said may be Nhim Sophea—of allegedly leading a gang that beat and stabbed three Japanese men outside a nightclub.
Two of the Japanese were seriously injured, one with a punctured liver. Military police were still searching for suspect weeks later.
In November 2001, Nhim Pov was detained in prison for several day for firing a handgun outside a Phnom Penh Karaoke club.
In late December 2001, nephew Hun Chea was arrested in connection with a shoot-out that erupted between two opposing groups at a beer garden in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen later ordered the arrest of a second nephew, Hun To.
Hun Sen said at the time: “Regardless who it is—my nephew, my child—everyone must be equal before the law.”
With less than a week spent in prison, Hun To and Hun Chea were released on guarantees of good behavior, in time to attend the wedding of their cousin, Hun Manit, Hun Sen’s son who married the daughter of National Police Chief Hok Lundy. The case was dropped a few weeks later because of a lack of evidence.