Police said on Tuesday that an investigation into Monday’s beating of an NGO official and rights activists during a protest in Phnom Penh was hampered by a lack of witnesses to the clash between marchers and security guards.
The beating, which took place amid a crowd of hundreds and was captured on video and in photographs from several angles—many of them quickly posted online—came halfway through a land rights demonstration belatedly marking World Habitat Day.
Daun Penh district security guards stormed protesters after they attempted to divert their route. Am Sam Ath, the technical supervisor of rights group Licadho, had been asking the guards to refrain from violence when they set upon him, according to Mr. Sam Ath and other witnesses.
Chhorn Kaony, Chey Chumneah commune’s police chief, said he received two complaints about the violence, the first from Mr. Sam Ath and the other from anti-eviction activist Chan Puthisak, who was also attacked by guards.
“We are working hard to process this case,” Mr. Kaony said.
However, police had yet to question anyone—neither security guards nor protesters—because they could not locate anyone, he said.
“We’re looking for witnesses, and so far we haven’t found any specific witnesses,” Mr. Kaony said.
“The people who were walking around that area [on Tuesday] did not directly see the incident, and bystanders [from the march] are gone. We don’t know where their houses are.”
Commune police will escalate the case to higher authorities if they cannot solve it, he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, however, said he would rather see the guards and complainants come together and make up.
“Let’s talk together,” General Sopheak said. “The one who intentionally beat the other should say, ‘Oh, we apologize to you. Next time it will not happen.’”
Gen. Sopheak said Monday’s incident was a result of the “stubbornness of each side.”
“If there is no fire, there is no smoke. There is no sound with one hand. You need both hands to make a sound,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said it was impossible to say whether a state security guard had beaten Mr. Sam Ath or Mr. Puthisak.
“At the time it was just a mass of people,” he said. “One could not see who was who.”
However, photographs and video clearly show protesters covering their heads and trying to duck —or moving in front of fellow activists—as security guards throw repeated punches at their heads.
Interviewed by telephone on Tuesday, Mr. Sam Ath said the excuse from police of not being able to locate those involved in the situation was absurd.
“It can’t be difficult to find them,” he said. “Those security guards have bosses, and they know who they are.”
Khim Vutha, the head of the notorious district guards, gave the order for his men to move in on the protesters.
Mr. Sam Ath also rejected Gen. Sopheak’s call to make a deal with his assailants.
“We want a result according to the law and an end to all violence. The individual who committed this must be held responsible,” he said.
Keo Remy, chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said the beating was not discussed with visiting U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, at a meeting on Tuesday.
However, Mr. Remy said he was curious about the incident’s timing.
“If Ms. Rhona Smith does not arrive, does the incident not happen? It was quiet; there were no problems. But when Ms. Rhona Smith arrived there was a march and there was violence. We need to ask this question.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)