Mystery Surrounds Prison Break, Police Chief

It would make for a great Hong Kong gangster flick. First, a high-profile assassination—a well-known judge gunned down in broad daylight on Phnom Penh’s Sihanouk Boulevard.

Then an arrest, followed by allegations of forced confessions and torture with knuckle-dusters, electric shocks, and buckets of water.

Finally a spectacular prison break after collaborators slip the star of the movie a saw baked into a cake.

Somehow, with 11 other prisoners, the star binds and gags five other inmates in a cell, cuts through metal bars with the saw and climbs out of a window using a rope made of sheets and mosquito nets.

A car waits on the other side of the prison wall, and whisks him and his fellow jail breakers into the night.

Which elements of Hang Vuthy’s story are true vary depending on whom you speak to.

But no one disputes that the former Phnom Penh criminal section deputy police chief has dropped out of sight.

And now, some are beginning to wonder if Hang Vuthy, a former ally of fugitive ex-Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov, will ever be seen again.

Prior to his escape from Prey Sar prison in June, Hang Vuthy denied any part in the 2003 murder of Judge Sok Sethamony. Authorities also rejected claims they tortured Hang Vuthy in prison while human rights workers say the circumstances of his jailbreak are suspicious.

Two weeks ago, Interior Ministry Penal Police Chief Mok Chito said his men had a good idea where Hang Vuthy was hiding and that they were closing in. But a week later, he said the trail had gone cold.

“We have to arrest him,” Mok Chito said last week. “[But] now we can’t find him.”

On Monday, Mok Chito said police now have some idea of where Hang Vuthy is.

“There are [clues], two in fact, but police never reveal them,” he added.

As far back as July, police said they were closing in on Hang Vuthy and his fellow jailbreakers in the jungles of Kompong Speu province. But no arrests were ever made.

Even the offer of a $12,500 reward for information on the 12 fugitives by National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy has seemingly proved ineffective.

In a statement read out on state-run TVK in the wake of the jailbreak, Hok Lundy called on the public to cooperate with the police in their search for the men.

But to date, only one of the jaibreakers—21-year-old suspected thief Chet Ratana—has been detained and returned to Prey Sar, in an arrest made near the French Embassy on June 15.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he had no information regarding Hang Vuthy’s whereabouts.

He added that the ministry was still investigating the prison break, but declined further comment.

The case has some rights workers concerned, and has prompted rumor and speculation among several police officials and journalists about what may have become of Hang Vuthy.

One rumor is that the jailbreak may have been staged, and that Hang Vuthy may have met an untimely demise.

Hang Vuthy “has become a bodyguard to Ta Mok,” one local journalist claims, referring to the notorious Khmer Rouge military commander who died in July.

A former acquaintance of Hang Vuthy, who knows the former police officer from his days as a second-hand car salesman several years ago, claims that Hang Vuthy was taken to Kampot province following the jailbreak, and that no one knows what happened to him next.

Chan Soveth, investigator with local rights group Adhoc, said Hang Vuthy might have posed a threat to elements within the police.

“Hang Vuthy was an important police officer involved in criminal acts,” Chan Soveth said. “It might be troublesome when he confronts the court because he was working under orders from his superiors.”

At the very least, says Chan Soveth, the June 11 jailbreak was very suspicious.

Chan Soveth said that Prey Sar prison was well-built and well-guarded. He added that there may be more to the jailbreak than meets the eye.

“An opportunity had to be handed [to the escapees] to run away,” he said.

Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said her organization was allowed to make a short investigation of the escape, but was not given enough access to confirm or rule out whether the convicts were given inside assistance.

Chan Soveth said it is difficult for fugitives to remain at large in Cambodia, but that Hang Vuthy is a special case.

“Hang Vuthy is capable of running away because he was a police officer and knows other police” who may have helped him, he said.

Hang Vuthy may well have had reason to want to escape.

In an undated letter purportedly written to his wife and obtained in March, Hang Vuthy alleged that while in detention in February, military police had tortured him.

“The torture included covering my face and electrocuting me, covering my head with plastic and holding me underwater…and beating me with brass knuckles,” Hang Vuthy claimed.

He also wrote that he had considered suicide in detention, and warned his wife: “If someone calls you to meet somewhere, do not go.”

Ly Rasy, former deputy municipal minor crime police chief, also purportedly claimed in a written statement that he had been tortured in detention.

Ly Rasy alleged in his letter, dated Feb 20, that the torture was intended to make him give confessions implicating disgraced former municipal police chief Heng Pov in criminals acts.

Police and military police officials have firmly denied the torture allegations.

Ly Rasy and Hang Vuthy both worked under Heng Pov.

On Sept 18, Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Heng Pov to 18 years in absentia for killing Judge Sok Sethamony.

Ly Rasy, who attended the trial, received a 16-year sentence for killing the judge. So did Hang Vuthy, who like Heng Pov was convicted in absentia.

Hang Vuthy and Heng Pov will both begin their sentences the day they are arrested, the court ruled. Heng Pov fled the country in late July and is now seeking political asylum, claiming he will be killed if he is sent back to Cambodia.

One cousin of Hang Vuthy who refused to give his name said he knew nothing about his relative’s whereabouts.

Contacted on Monday, National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy declined comment on Hang Vuthy’s case and referred questions to Mok Chito.

Mok Chito laughed when asked whether he thought Hang Vuthy was still alive.

“I don’t know what to say to that,” he said. “We’re just looking for him.”

      (Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Van Roeun)


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