A group of 54 local and international non-government groups said Sunday that the state may be behind the disappearance of a 16-year-old boy last seen bleeding from a bullet wound at a garment worker protest in January, and urged the government to investigate.
Five garment workers were reported dead on January 3 after military police indiscriminately opened fire on mostly rock-throwing garment workers protesting for higher wages outside Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park.
Only four bodies were later identified by relatives and rights groups, however, leaving Khem Sophath, 16, unaccounted for.
A witness said he last saw Khem Sophath at the scene of the shootings lying on the ground and bleeding profusely from what appeared to be a gunshot wound. He has not been seen since, nor has his body been recovered, leading to widespread speculation that military police are hiding his death.
“Considering the witness’ report and Khem Sophath’s unknown whereabouts in the context of the arbitrary killings and arrests carried out by Cambodian security forces that day, there are reasonable grounds to believe that Khem Sophath might have been subject to an enforced disappearance,” the joint statement says.
“We call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take all appropriate measures to immediately, thoroughly and impartially investigate Khem Sophath’s disappearance and inform his family of his fate or whereabouts.”
The statement, signed mostly by local NGOs and labor unions, was also joined by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
They say the government, as a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, is obliged to investigate the case and to bring those responsible to justice. The convention, which Cambodia ratified last year, also requires the government, should Khem Sophath be dead, to find and return the remains.
The convention defines enforced disappearance as any disappearance carried out by the state or someone acting with the state’s consent, in which the state refuses to acknowledge the disappearance or reveal the person’s whereabouts.
Mey Ryna, Khem Sophath’s uncle, said the family has lost any hope of finding his nephew alive—or of bringing his killers to justice.
“We have not filed a complaint against the authorities because they are the ones who killed him,” Mr. Ryna said. “We believe he was killed because his friend saw the shooting and police carrying him away.”
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police, said authorities have been looking for Khem Sophath but have also come up empty handed.
“We have been looking for his name in the prisons and the hospitals but we cannot find the name that civil society is looking for,” he said. “But if civil society keeps insisting, we will continue to help look for him.”
An ad hoc committee set up under Interior Minister Sar Kheng to investigate the events of January 3 wrapped up its work last month but has yet to release its findings.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the official death count from January 3 was four and denied any knowledge of a missing person.
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