Plaintiffs in Grenade Attack Suit Face Long Odds

The lawsuit filed last month in the US against Prime Minister Hun Sen by opposition leader Sam Rainsy and several others, including a US national woun­ded in a 1997 gre­nade at­tack, faces steep legal obstacles and little hope of success, according to officials and legal experts.

The lawsuit was filed in a New York district court while Hun Sen was visiting the UN. According to the legal documents, the plaintiffs allege that the prime minister and members of his personal bodyguard unit were involved in the gre­nade attack on a peaceful op­position rally that left about 15 dead and 150 wounded.

Hearings on the case are likely to begin in November, according to a news release from the US-based World Organization for Hu­man Rights, which is helping liti­gate the case on behalf of Sam Rainsy, Ron Abney, the former Cam­­bodia director of the Interna­tional Republican Institute who was injured in the attack, and others.

But one US law professor said that the lawsuit would have little chance of success unless Hun Sen were to leave office—and that even then it would be a long shot.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Sept 14 ruled that Sam Rainsy had no grounds to pursue such a case against the prime minister, while Hun Sen announced late last month that he had signed off on a de­famation lawsuit seeking $25 mil­lion from Sam Rainsy in dam­ages for his allegations regard­ing the attack.

“There is nothing to worry about,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said of the case in the US. “There is nothing to im­plicate [Hun Sen].”

Ka Savuth, Hun Sen’s lawyer, de­­clined comment on the lawsuit un­­­til the case advanced further.

Diane Orentlicher, a law professor at American University who specializes in international criminal tribunals and issues surrounding accountability for human rights crimes, said the plaintiffs in the case “face an uphill climb” while Hun Sen is still prime minister.

“Hun Sen is still the leader of a foreign country…. As such, he en­joys broad immunity—but only while he holds office,” Orent­licher wrote in an e-mail.

Prosecuting rights cases abroad is extremely difficult, Orentlicher added.

“The plaintiffs would have to convince the judge that they had es­tablished all the elements of their causes of action in relation to events that happened a world away and, in relation to some allegations, decades ago,” she wrote.

Even in the most high-profile of such cases—the arrest of former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet on charges of widespread human rights abuses related to his 1973 coup and subsequent dictatorship—Pinochet was no longer in­cum­bent head of state when he was arrested in London in 1998 while seeking medical treatment, Orentlicher wrote.

Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Hu­­man Rights, said his group got involved in the 1997 grenade at­tack case because one of its aims is to make alleged human rights abus­ers accountable, particularly those who are or were heads of state.

But Sklar admitted that this case would be tough going.

“It is very doubtful that monetary damages will result,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “But [cases like these] provide the victims with a very essential oppor­tun­ity to confront their [alleged] abusers, and to obtain from a court a determination that these abus­es actually oc­curred.” Sklar said the group had brought four similar lawsuits against China and former Chin­ese president Jiang Zemin for al­leged human rights abuses against the Falun Gong spiritual group.

Jaykumar Menon, a legal counselor for the suit who claims to have worked on similar cases re­garding the Bosnian genocide, alleged environmental abuses by the Shell Oil Company in Nigeria and complaints from student leaders involved in the Tianan­men Square protests in Beijing, said such action could have some concrete consequences.

Assets may be seized, visas to the US denied and additional suits lodged if the defendants trav­el abroad, Menon claimed.

Plaintiff Ron Abney reiterated that the US was guilty of a cover-up in its investigation of the gre­nade attack. “The grenade attack is an Amer­ican story in addition to a tragic saga in Cambodian life,” he wrote by e-mail. “It is a cover-up by the [US Federal Bureau of In­vestigation] and officials from the 1997-99 State Department,” he wrote, adding that Tom Nico­let­ti, an FBI agent involved in in­ves­tigation, was a tragic figure as he was punished for finding the truth.

Abney singled out Kenneth Quinn, who in 1997 was the US am­­bassador to Cambodia, and Stan­­ley Roth, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State De­partment, for particular criticism.

“I hope all Americans involved will be made to testify in American court and face perjury charges and not just bad press,” Abney said.

“We’re just trying to bring the whole mess out in the open for the world to see,” he said, adding that the case would hopefully give Cam­­bodia’s human rights situation international attention.

Sam Rainsy said he brought the case in the US because he would have no chance of receiving an objective court hearing here.

“Given the politically subser­vient court here, I have no alternative apart from filing lawsuits be­fore courts in democratic countries such as France and the US,” he wrote in an e-mail.

But Sok Sam Oeun, head of the Cambodian Defenders Project, decried the ever-increasing number of lawsuits high-ranking officials are filing against one another.

“I want to see them work to­ge­ther,” he said. “I want them to see the future, not the past.”

  (Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)


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