Authorities have been unable to investigate the fate of a 16-year-old boy who disappeared after he was seen bleeding profusely during the January 2014 rampage by military police on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Street because no complaint was filed, the National Police said this week.
On January 3, 2014, military police armed with AK-47 rifles ended a nationwide strike of garment workers, who were demanding a $160 monthly minimum wage, when they stormed the factory-lined boulevard on Phnom Penh’s industrial outskirts, shooting or beating dead at least five people taking part in a violent protest.
Yet only four of the bodies were recovered and identified by human rights groups at hospitals around Phnom Penh. The body of Khem Sophath was never found.
In a video posted to the National Police website on Monday, National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith responds to a statement about Khem Sophath’s disappearance issued by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights for Sunday’s International Day of the Disappeared, calling for the boy’s family to file a complaint.
“After the protest on Veng Sreng Street last year, we heard some NGOs raising a missing youth named ‘Phat,’ and we did some investigations but until now we have had some difficulties investigating,” Lieutenant General Chantharith says.
“We have not seen the family make any official complaints to the National Police in Phnom Penh or anywhere else,” Lt. Gen. Chantharith explains. “As there has been no complaint, there is no cooperation [from the family] with us.”
“We regret to hear that people are missing a child, and we the National Police are not happy…but we call for the family, especially the father and mother in Svay Chrum district in Svay Rieng [province], to file a clear complaint,” he says.
Lt. Gen. Chantharith says in the video that police had done some searching based on information from NGOs, but needed a better source to begin a proper investigation into what happened to Khem Sophath.
“For example, on that day, was he present there or not, and why is he missing? Where did he run, or fall into water and mud? When we have this source, we can investigate who spotted him last,” he says.
“We ask for cooperation,” he adds. “We call on the parents to file an official complaint.”
Witnesses to the January 3, 2014, shootings said they saw military police firing their AK-47s indiscriminately from large trucks on Veng Sreng Street before emerging from the trucks and taking more careful aim at workers who did not flee.
One witness to the shootings, which also left at least 40 people seriously injured, said that he last saw Khem Sophath on Veng Sreng Street lying on the ground and bleeding profusely.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the fatal repression, the Interior Ministry said the death count was only four and denied knowing about any missing persons or anyone killed whose body had not been recovered.
The U.N. in August 2014 released a statement calling on the government to thoroughly investigate Khem Sophath’s “enforced disappearance,” noting that it had an obligation to do so as a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
In Leakhena, 38, the mother of Khem Sophath, said by telephone Tuesday that she never filed a complaint with the police because her son’s disappearance was so publicized that she assumed police were already investigating the case.
“We did not file a complaint with authorities because they have never come to ask any questions about the disappearance,” she said.
“The village chief just yesterday came to ask about birth dates, and the date of the disappearance, as police have asked for this information to send to higher police.”
Khem Sophath’s father, Khem Soeun, 42, was more blunt, saying he did not trust the National Police.
“We never filed a complaint to authorities because they are all on the side of the ones who shot the workers, especially the military police. Therefore they will not find justice for my son, so we decided just to file complaints with the NGOs,” he said.
Mr. Soeun said police were aware of the case and had everything they needed if they wanted to investigate, adding that the family had a two-hour meeting with authorities in May.
“The Interior Ministry summoned us and questioned us about when and where he went missing,” Mr. Soeun said, adding that he was still not sure if he should take the police seriously.
“I will discuss this issue with Licadho—whether we should file a complaint or not.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, a local rights group, said Lt. Gen. Chantharith was being disingenuous about authorities’ quest to find out what happened to Kem Sophath.
“If there was no complaint, why did the Interior Ministry summon and question the parents and witnesses in May 2014, with the parents still never receiving any information about the disappearance yet?” Mr. Sam Ath asked.
“We cannot say whether he is alive or dead…[but] if he was alive, he would have sent information to his family, because it has been more than a year that he has been missing.”
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