A funeral wreath and photograph of a bespectacled middle-aged man adorns the cover of a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on extrajudicial killings in Cambodia, and what the group says is a pervading culture of impunity under the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The man on the cover of the report is Om Radsady, a senior Funcinpec official, who was gunned down in broad daylight while eating lunch with friends at a packed restaurant on a busy Phnom Penh street in the run-up to the 2003 national elections.
Witnesses at the time told how the gunman shot Om Radsady at pointblank range and then ran to a waiting motorcycle but then doubled back to the dying Om Radsady to belatedly snatch a cheap mobile phone from the restaurant table.
Taking the Funcinpec adviser’s old phone was an obvious afterthought for the assassin. But the killing of Om Radsady was not.
The authorities said the robbery was the motive, and police arrested two men, both of whom were quickly tried and sentenced to 20 years in jail.
The two, both Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) paratroopers, said they killed the politician for his phone, which for some inexplicable reason they then threw into a river.
None in the royalist party believed the “official” story at the time.
Om Radsady was a mild-mannered man who was much admired for his keen intellect and political strategizing. At the time of his murder, he had been assisting Funcinpec navigate a dispute between the royalist party’s outspoken Princess Norodom Vacheara, a member of Parliament, and Mr. Hun Sen.
Princess Vacheara had threatened to sue Mr. Hun Sen for defamation for allegedly threatening to throw her in prison at a weekly Cabinet meeting. In retaliation, Mr. Hun Sen said that he was planning to counter sue the princess.
Something of a rarity in Cambodian politics, Om Radsady was never tainted by allegations of corruption or self-enrichment. His murder had a chilling effect on opposition politics at the time, and the memory of his murder still stands testament to the culture of politically-motivated killings in Cambodia.
But Om Radsady is just one example among hundreds of extrajudicial killings that have been carried out since the 1991 signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, according to the encyclopedic 68-page HRW report, titled Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them—Two Decades of Impunity in Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“More than 300 people have been killed in politically motivated attacks since the Paris Agreements,” HRW said in the report. “Almost no progress has been made in tackling impunity over the past two decades. Instead, perpetrators have been promoted and protected.”
Journalists, union leaders, opposition politicians, environmental activists, and even teenage karaoke singers have all fallen victim to government-sanctioned killings or attempted killings, HRW alleges in the report, and the courts have consistently failed to investigate and prosecute the real perpetrators, the group states.
“Abuses such as extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary arrest, and land grabs almost never result in successful criminal prosecutions and commensurate prison terms if the perpetrator is in the military, police, or is politically connected,” the report states.
On his visit to Phnom Penh next week for the Asean and East Asia summits, U.S. President Barack Obama should call on the government “to publicly demand systematic reforms and an end to impunity for abusive officials,” HRW said in a statement launching the report yesterday.
Many senior CPP security officials are named by HRW in the report, including Mok Chito, now a three-star general at the Ministry of Interior, Sok Phal, a three-star general at the ministry and member of the CPP Central Committee, and General Hing Bun Heang, head of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit.
Contacted by telephone yesterday, all three men denied the allegations of wrongdoing contained in the report.
“I haven’t read the report yet, but maybe it’s not right,” Lieutenant General Phal said. “I never killed anyone.”
“Even though they wrote this, I don’t care,” Gen. Bun Heang said.
The title of the report, Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them, is reportedly named after a comment made by Gen. Bun Heang to journalists following the 1997 grenade attack in Phnom Penh. Gen. Bun Heang was addressing his threat to journalists who had written articles linking the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, which he commands, to the grenade attack that year on a peaceful rally, which killed 16 people and left more than 100 injured.
To this day, no one has ever been held to account for the 1997 grenade attack, which is considered one of the worst atrocities in post-Khmer Rouge regime Cambodia.
Lieutenant General Chito declined to comment on the report.
Taking a number of cases as examples of impunity over the past 20 years, the report argues that the promise of the 1991 Paris agreement—which was essentially meant to usher in a new era of peace and respect for human rights after years of war and communist rule—has been continually undermined by Mr. Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Examples cited in the HRW report include the murder of journalists Thun Bun Ly in 1996 and Khim Sambo in 2008, the 1997 grenade attack, the 2004 assassination of union leader Chea Vichea, and two of his Free Trade Union colleagues, the disfiguring 1999 acid attack on 16-year-old Tat Marina by the then-wife of Secretary of State Svay Sitha, and most recently, the murder in Koh Kong province of environmentalist Chut Wutty.
“The message to Cambodians is that even the most well-known killers are above the law, so long as they have protection from the country’s political and military leaders,” HRW said.
In the case of union leader Chea Vichea, who was assassinated while buying a newspaper in central Phnom Penh in 2004, two men were arrested and sentenced to 20 years each. But mirroring Om Radsady’s case, the pair is widely believed to have been scapegoats.
Even the police official that arrested the pair, Heng Pov, later told a French newspaper that he was told to frame them by then National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy. Heng Pov, a long-time CPP security apparatus stalwart and former undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, has since fallen from grace and is now serving almost 100 years in prison for a reign of crime while a senior police official, including the assassination of a municipal court judge.
The government yesterday was dismissive of the report, saying it was false and timed for the arrival of Mr. Obama.
“This is propaganda only…to persuade the world, especially Barack Obama,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers.
“It doesn’t represent the facts…. A number of high-ranking officials have been jailed…from advisers to judges,” Mr. Siphan said.
Mr. Siphan also maintained that there is no impunity in Cambodia.
“Those people [HRW] don’t know well about Cambodia,” he added.
The report, while damning of Mr. Hun Sen’s government and the country’s judicial institutions, is also critical of international donors, saying that some foreign governments and international funders have often downplayed or ignored the culture of extrajudicial killing and impunity in order to avoid confronting senior government officials.
HRW, which is based in New York, took specific aim at U.S. involvement with the government.
“Since 2006, the United States has provided more than $4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to Cambodia,” the report states, adding that some of Washington’s largess has gone to military units, including the prime minister’s personal bodyguard unit, which have track records of abusing human rights.
The U.S. Embassy did not respond to a question regarding the call from HRW for Mr. Obama to address the issue of impunity during his visit to Phnom Penh. However, human rights are a core principal, the embassy said.
“We raise these human rights concerns, have raised these concerns, and will continue to raise these concerns with the Royal Government of Cambodia,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh.
“The U.S. government seeks to promote the professionalization of Cambodian armed forces. Human rights vetting for participants in these efforts is conducted in full accordance with U.S. law and Department of State regulations,” Mr. McIntosh added.
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)