School girls queued up on Tuesday to buy sugar cane juice from a stall just meters from the small bamboo bridge in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district where Mak Run was beaten to death by a mob on Saturday evening.
As young men mended motorbikes at a garage across the road, there was little to suggest that days earlier, the alleged robber dashed from the back of a police car, before a group of about 40 men along the side of the road descended on him with rocks in their hands.
“When he escaped from the car, police shot [in the air] and shouted ‘robber,’” Pov Sa Von, a motorbike taxi driver who witnessed the killing recalled.
One man living a few meters from the site said people continued to stone the 29-year-old’s body for more than two hours after his death, before authorities arrived to remove the bloody corpse.
Publicly accusing someone of robbery or theft can be tantamount to a death sentence in Cambodia. Rights workers have accused police of sometimes participating and have argued that the killings could be avoided if people had faith in the courts.
Cambodia’s corrupt judiciary tends to release robbers, who then re-offend, Pov Sa Von said.
“That’s why when people know about the robber, they have to kill,” he said, but he added that he was not involved in Saturday’s mob killing.
In the first three months of this year, local rights group Licadho recorded six mob killings. In 2004, the NGO recorded 18 killings, Licadho official Ung Bunthan said in a statement. Most victims are suspected of robbing people of their motorbikes, he said.
Some have also died while under police protection, when police allowed mobs to remove robbery suspects from police vehicles and then kill them, Ung Bunthan said in an interview.
On Monday, police said Mak Run was killed after falling off the back of a stolen motorbike.
On Tuesday, Mom Saveth, Dangkao district police chief, said he was killed after being taken into custody.
“Mak Run opened the [police] car door and ran away,” Mom Saveth said, adding that police subsequently fired shots in the air.
But Chan Soveth, Adhoc program officer, who investigated the case, said he was told by a pagoda official who cremated Mak Run’s body that the body had a bullet wound.
No one has been arrested for their involvement in Mak Run’s death, Chan Soveth said.
Police involvement in mob killings is not undocumented.
A June 2002 UN human rights office report features photos of a July 21, 2000, mob killing in Phnom Penh in which a police officer appears to be restricting a half-naked and bleeding robbery suspect’s arms while the crowd attack him.
Another photo taken the same day shows the terrified face of another robbery suspect sitting in the back seat of a police car. Shortly afterward, the UN report said, he was driven away and shot dead by police. Police claimed that he, like Mak Run, tried to escape.
Mob violence is sometimes motivated by a belief that it will be rewarded by the authorities, the report said.
Faced with widespread skepticism over the court system, Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 3 pledged to reform the judiciary with his “iron fist,” after ordering the re-arrest of seven robbery suspects allegedly released by corrupt court officials.
He dubbed thieves on March 9 “the enemy of the premier and the people.”
Critics have described Hun Sen’s campaign as a populist move designed to appeal to public hatred of robbers and thieves and to create the impression of judicial reform in order to placate the international community.
But motorbike taxi driver Pov Sa Von said he did not believe that the campaign will affect any real change in the judiciary and the way it deals with robbery suspects.
Judges “will just react now and later they will become corrupt again” and will revert to releasing robbers, he said.
“If the court really followed the law and made strict decisions, mobs would not kill people like this.”