Little Hope for Justice 16 Years After Grenade Attack

A few hundred members and supporters of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and relatives of the 16 men, women and children killed in a grenade attack on a protest rally in 1997 will gather on Saturday at the scene of the blasts in Phnom Penh.

They will mourn for the dead, have a few monks bless their departed spirits and call for justice. But there will be none.

It will be another quiet anniversary of the 1997 grenade attack—one of the worst mass killings in modern Cambodian history for which no one has ever been held to account.

In the years since that savage attack outside the former National Assembly building, the CPP-led government has arrested scores of other people allegedly linked to terrorist or rebel groups, some more credible than others.

Most recently, the government had six Khmer Krom men arrested earlier this month in Thailand, returned to Cambodia, and charged with planning an attack on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Just a few months ago, independent radio station owner Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in jail for leading an alleged rebel group bent on breaking away from state rule in rural Kratie province, although there was no evidence of any secessionist designs in the case.

In 2009, government forces ar­rested four men who were deemed to be leaders of the so-called Tiger Head resistance movement. They are now serving prison sentences of between 20 and 29 years for “terrorism,” despite there being little evidence of an actual antigovernment plot.

But 16 years after the three grenades tore through the crowds of garment workers, other protesters and their families in Wat Botum Park on the morning of March 30, 1997, killing 16 and injuring roughly 100 more, no one has ever been arrested for the massacre, let alone put on trial.

On the eve of the massacre’s 16th anniversary, government officials still claim they are investigating.

“It is still open, but I don’t know the progress,” said National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith. “It is at the top national level.”

Mr. Chantharith referred all other questions to Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokes­man for the Ministry of Interior.

Lt. Gen. Sopheak said Thursday the key to cracking the 16-year-old atrocity was a suspect nicknamed Brazil.

Brazil, however, has not been seen since July 1997. Another suspect in the case, Chom Bun Theun, told the FBI that he saw Brazil’s dead body later that year.

“There is no change in this case,” Lt. Gen. Sopheak said. “The main clue is a man named Brazil. We gave the case to the FBI and we worked together. We chased the guy, Brazil…and then he disappeared.”

In a 2004 interview with the Cambodia Daily, Lt. Gen. Sopheak himself said Brazil was dead. At the time, he said Brazil had died “accidentally by falling off a car,” and that factional government fighting in 1997 had thwarted his arrest.

The FBI probe into the 1997 attack, which was prompted by the injury of a U.S. citizen in the blasts, accused the government of blocking access to Brazil during the same year.

But FBI investigators suspected government-aligned forces of far more than that.

In a since declassified email to FBI headquarters while the case was still open, a bureau official said that witness testimony implicated CPP-aligned forces in the attack.

“Although there is no definitive proof that [redacted] ordered the grenade attack against the Khmer National Party (KNP) protest demonstration, there are several witness statements indicating possible involvement of [redacted] CPP operatives in the actual grenade attack and the complicity of CPP-controlled military units in the vicinity of the protest demonstration allowing the subjects to escape,” according to the email, obtained by The Cambodia Daily under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in the U.S.

According to the FBI files obtained in the FOIA request, witnesses to the attack reported seeing two of the possible assailants immediately after the blasts flee toward a military compound behind Wat Botum where a cordon of government troops stepped aside to let them through.

In 2005, the FBI finally shut down its investigation of the 1997 attack saying the results were inconclusive.

Lt. Gen. Sopheak on Thursday accused the opposition Sam Rainsy Party of using the attack in 1997 for political gain.

“This was a sad tragedy,” Lt. Gen. Sopheak said.

“Please stop accusing and blaming other political parties for political gain. Please stop using these people’s lives for politics,” he added.

SRP Secretary-General Ke Sovannroth said her party wants only justice for the victims.

Ms. Sovannroth said there would be an estimated 300 people and 50 monks in attendance at Saturday’s memorial at the stupa by Wat Botum that commemorates the bloody attack.

“Though the ruling party and the courts cannot find justice for the victims of this crime, we hope that in the next five or 10 years, when Cambodia has moved on to a truly democratic government, the new government will seek justice for those victims,” she said.

“Only a new government can help find justice for the people.”

SRP President Sam Rainsy, who was leading the 1997 rally when the grenades detonated, will address the crowd via video-link from France, where he lives in self-imposed exile.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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