Justice in Commune Candidate Killings Still Hanging in Balance

Srolop commune, Kompong Cham province – They shot him while he slept in his own bed, with his wife and seven children not a meter away. They didn’t take money or any possessions from the house. They ignored the barking dog, the clatter from the bicycle they overturned. The shooters climbed the steps of Soy Tha’s house, shone a flashlight in her husband’s face, shot him twice and killed him. Then they walked away, disappearing into the fields behind the house.

This was seven months ago before the commune election, when Soy Tha’s husband Thon Phally was still a commune candidate for Funcinpec. But the images of the shooter’s faces illuminated by the brightness of the flashlight remain in her memory.

“It was Veth,” Soy Tha said last week in Srolop commune. “He was the one who shot my husband…. After they shot him I yelled “Why did you shoot my husband when you can’t shoot me?” and they fired another shot into the air]. But then they left.”

Standing underneath her raised house in Srolop commune, Soy Tha points to the maroon-red stain on her floor—her husband’s blood—which she couldn’t clean out of the wood. She carries a photo of her husband in his military uniform. She also keeps a copy of a court decision, handed down on May 3, which says the man who she positively identified as her husband’s killer will be released from jail and is innocent of the charges against him.

Her husband Thon Phally was shot to death Nov 14 in Srolop commune an hour later a Sam Rainsy Party activist was shot and killed in the same commune. The double-killing attracted the attention of human rights groups and the UN; police made arrests, suspects were caught. The Kompong Cham provincial court held a trial in the first week of May which was considered a “key” test for Cambodia’s courts.

Yet according to the UN, human rights groups and Soy Tha, the courts have failed. The Kompong Cham court released two of the accused despite her eyewitness testimony during the trial that “Veth”, also known as Eang Veth, killed her husband. Some say the police have failed too, since two other men accused of the killing have never been arrested and were tried and convicted in absentia of the killings.

But the issue of finding justice is much broader than this individual case. At least 17 commune candidates or activists were killed in the months leading up to the election, with five of those killings in Kompong Cham province.

So far very few accused throughout the country have been tried and convicted. Authorities have found convictions in only six of the 17 election-related killings, yet the UN and international observers criticized the courts and government for convicting the wrong suspects or not observing legal process.

Even larger than the alleged court failings, however, is the impunity with which suspected or accused killers can allegedly act with. And no one is a bigger opponent and critic of this impunity than Soy Tha.

“No justice has been found,” Soy Tha said. “I disagree that they released Veth If I could see clearly that he was the killer, he should be convicted.”

Although she appealed the case several weeks after the verdict was handed down, she has yet to hear from the courts or authorities.

The man she is accusing of the killing is a policeman currently stationed at the Tbong Khmum district police headquarters. And Eang Veth’s father, Pol Eang, is the current commune chief of Srolop commune, where the killings took place. Pol Eang, who was re-elected in February as the CPP Srolop commune chief, has been serving as commune chief in Srolop since 1979.

“My son was released he was not involved in the killing,” Pol Eang said last week at his home in Srolop commune. “He was in another village waiting for wood, and he was at home by 6 [pm]. The accident happened at 8 pm.”

Like Eang Veth, the four other men accused of killing Thon Phally and Sam Rainsy Party activist Phuong Sophat are either policemen or militia members. Also, the men were accused of committing other election-related threats and violence.

“For weeks ahead of the election, armed gangs roamed free at night in areas of Tbong Khmum district, targeting individual Funcinpec candidates, and stealing cattle from villagers. These groups were organized and were mainly comprised of members of the security forces (police and military) and their relatives,” according to 2002 commune election report from the UN human rights office released in May.

“In mid-November they murdered [Phuong Sophat and Thon Phally]. Over the following weeks, they targeted mostly Funcinpec activists, surrounding their homes at night, shining flashlights into their houses, and calling out their names.”
So far, only one individual has been convicted of any election-related violence in Kompong Cham province.

Chan Sokhan, the widow of slain Sam Rainsy Party activist Phuong Sophat, was alone on the night of the killing but is still haunted by the incident.

The night was dark on Nov 14 so dark that Chan Sokhan couldn’t see the faces of the four men who drove up to her house on two motorcycles. One of the men entered her yard and asked if Phuong Sophat was home

“He isn’t home. He is at my neighbor’s house,” I told the man,” Chan Sokhan said.
“Call him,” Chan Sokhan recalled the man said to her.

Because Chan Sokhan didn’t know the men, she refused to call her husband back to the house. Unknown to her, however, her husband Phuong Sophat was walking along the small dirt path that leads from her neighbor’s house to her house. The four men left her house.

Almost immediately after they drove away, Chan Sokhan heard gunshots. Although she was at first “paralyzed with fear,” she quickly ran to the road, expecting the worst.

What she found was her husband sprawled in the middle of the road, bleeding. He was still breathing when she found him, but barely. Chan Sokhan put his head in her lap and screamed for help. No one, however, came to help her.

For at least 30 minutes, she said she yelled for people to help her and her dying husband, but the villagers in Srolop stayed in their homes.

“I didn’t think about anything during that time except getting help,” Chan Sokhan said. But the minutes went by and she screamed herself hoarse.

Finally, a nurse who lived nearby came out to the street. As the nurse felt Phuong Sophat’s pulse, more villagers came out to investigate. A few men gathered Phuong Sophat into their arms and carried him to his bed. He died that night.

“They killed him because they hate him,” Chan Sokhan said last week in Srolop commune. “Now life is worse and worse. We have no money. If my husband was still here, we could get by with a little.”

Although Chan Sokhan cannot say who killed her husband, she remains certain that the motive behind the killing is political.

Many people share this view. Both the UN and Human Rights Watch stated that the motive behind the killing was most likely political and finding justice for the victims and the victim’s families is paramount to ending the culture of impunity and furthering democracy in Cambodia.

“Without progress in this and other outstanding cases, the prospects for free elections in 2003 and beyond look bleak,” stated Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division in a statement released on May 1, one day before the trial of the men accused in the killing.

Critics said, however, that the Kompong Cham provincial court not only did not find justice but released two of the accused who were, by witnesses accounts, guilty of the killings.

The trial opened May 2 in the small provincial courthouse. The courtroom was packed with witnesses, police officials and human rights investigators, and the courtroom grew hotter as the day drew on.

Sitting in front of the court’s audience were the three men accused of the killing: Eang “Veth” Veth, Lang “Seth” Sarin and Yun Samoeun. Each of the accused had been in jail for several months. They looked tired, thin and confused—hardly the picture of evil painted by the witnesses and human rights groups.

Sixteen witnesses gave testimony in that hot courtroom. Some testified for only a few minutes, others for at least half an hour. One witness, Tun Khea, the younger brother of Thon Phally, said he was in front of his house on the night of the killing when he heard Seth and Veth discussing weapons. He testified that one the men asked “are you ready with your guns?

The most powerful testimony came from Soy Tha, who testified that she saw Eang Veth, by the light of a flashlight, shoot her husband. She seemed nervous when giving her testimony, and perhaps out of fear she did not actually say with words who shot her husband. But she pointed very definitively at Veth when asked who shot her husband an action that could not be misinterpreted or mistaken.

The three accused, however, also testified during the trial. They denied taking part in the killing, but each admitted to driving around on motorcycles on the night of the killings with two other suspects, Yun Tony, a military official, and Chan Rotha, the deputy commander of submilitary region of Tbong Khmum district.

Both Yun Tony and Chan Rotha were accused and tried in absentia throughout the trial. All three defendants accused Yun Tony and Chan Rotha throughout their testimony of leading them around the commune. They did not, however, accuse the men of the actual killings.

Also, at least seven people testified on behalf of the defendants, providing them alibis at the time of the killings.

Their guilt or innocence then became a more muddled issue, clouded by a lack of evidence on the part of the prosecutors and positive alibis on the part of the defense.

In the end, the court decided to side with the defense. Both Eang Veth and Lang Sarin were acquitted for the killings while Yun Samoeun was convicted and sentenced to eight years for his part in the killing. Surprisingly, the courts convicted Yun Tony and Chan Rotha and sentenced both men in absentia to serve 18 years in prison.

The authorities, however, has still not arrested either of the convicted men. Officials from the Ministry of Interior said recently that Yun Tony and Chan Rotha are most likely in Kompong Thom province. No one in Srolop commune interviewed last week had any knowledge of the whereabouts of either man.

The Tbong Khmum district police station is crowded at 9 am, with police in brown uniforms walking to and from the five buildings on the police grounds. The sound of typewriters and people filing complaints can be heard outside each building. Its a bustling police station for this district town, with much more activity than the Srolop commune police station where Seth and Veth were previously stationed.

Both men are now working at this police station, and have been since their release in early May. They have received no demerits or formal punishments, and in fact, one police official at the Tbong Khmum district police station said both men are set to receive promotions.

“Now we are preparing documents to promote the two police,” said Van Krim, deputy police chief of Tbong Khmum district . “They were not involved in the murders. The Ministry of Interior investigation found that both men were not involved.”

Police at the station, however, refused to allow reporters to interview the two men, saying they were out on assignment and were not at the station. On one of the visits to the police station, Veth was seen walking near one of the buildings. He left immediately when he saw reporters.

According to some people, the case is far from over. UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht, on his sixth visit to Cambodia, was scheduled to come to Srolop commune to discuss this case. The appeal filed by Soy Tha is also still being considered by the courts.

Soy Tha is still living at the house where her husband was shot. She and her seven children received some assistance in November from co-Minister of Interior You Hockry because Thon Phally was a former Funcinpec resistance fighter. That assistance, however, has stopped coming. She is unemployed, and she can barely afford food.

“Before he was killed, [Thon Phally] worked and got about 40,000 riel to 60,000 riel, but now we have nothing,” she said. She held up the framed black-and-white photo of her husband. He is young, dressed in a military uniform. “I don’t understand why the men who killed him were released.”

Related Stories

Latest News