At least six men—and perhaps as many as 31—were executed in May by government soldiers assigned to the Snuol district military headquarters in Kratie province, human rights workers said Wednesday.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a group of 17 human rights organizations, issued a statement calling the killings “barbarous” and a “massacre.” The committee sent letters to King Norodom Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen and parliament, asking for an immediate investigation.
Military officials said Wednesday they knew of some of the killings, insisting the men were robbers and died during an exchange of gunfire with military police.
According to the rights workers, at least three of the bodies they found had been blindfolded and their arms were tied behind their backs. They had also been shot in the back, the workers said.
The human rights workers said among the six known dead are former Funcinpec supporters who joined the so-called Free Khmer movement after the factional fighting of July 1997.
The dead were identified as Nuon Virak, 34, a regional leader of the Free Khmer; his business partner, Son Pov, 31; Mek Kheoun, 31, a farmer; Me Nou of Svay Rieng; Khun Vun Sang and a man identified only as Mr Sed.
Witnesses told the rights workers that 25 others, many of whom are members of the Sngeang ethnic minority group, were killed at Phnom Prek, about 100 km northeast of Phnom Penh in Kratie province.
At least a dozen are said to be buried in a mass grave near Route 7.
The rights workers said many of the 25 who remain missing were also reportedly Free Khmer members or Funcinpec supporters. It was unclear exactly how the missing men may have been connected with those known dead.
The rights workers were still scrambling to piece together the details late Wednesday.
“We don’t know exactly why this happened,’’ said Thun Saray, director of the human rights group Adhoc. He said the only reason the military gave was that “they were killing bandits.’’
Military officials in Kratie province could not be reached for comment last night. But General Meas Sophea, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, said they were most definitely robbers.
“Those dead men are bandits. They are not Free Khmer at all. They robbed people and had illegal guns and we caught them in the act.”
He said the men had been preying on travelers along Route 7 between the towns of Snuol and Kratie and that military police had moved to arrest them at night, when they were having a drunken party.
He said the military killed seven men, not six, and they died during an exchange of fire.
“The military police surrounded them and confiscated three or four guns,’’ he said.
Meas Sophea said he had heard that human rights groups were investigating the case.
“They can complain, if they have enough evidence to prove they were illegally killed,’’ he said.
On a routine trip to Kratie last month, Meas Sophea said soldiers briefed him on the killings. Another high-ranking RCAF general said Meas Sophea told them to stop this type of killing.
Investigators for the human rights action committee spent a week investigating the reported deaths after they were tipped off by an informant, Thun Saray said.
The three who were bound and blindfolded were killed at kilometer 105 on Route 7, Snuol district, the statement said.
One was killed on Khao Saymar Road in Snuol district. The last two were killed in Chamkar Leu district, Kompong Cham province.
Investigators found five of the bodies, and based their identification of the sixth man on a witness’s account.
According to the CHRAC statement, among those killed and missing were soldiers who, after the 1998 elections, took advantage of the government’s blanket offer of amnesty for those who joined the government.
They were promised monthly salaries of $150, land for homes and farms and RCAF positions, the statement said.
Chan Soveth, Adhoc’s deputy director for monitoring, investigated the case for the action committee. He said the six men known to have died had apparently fled back into the jungle some time later, after running into trouble with military authorities.
But while he said it was true that at least five of the six owned guns, he does not believe they were robbers.
“I think it is not true. Maybe they stole some rice because they were hungry. But they did not hurt people,” he said.
He said villagers in the vicinity of Snuol district told him they were “afraid, because the military is so powerful and does not obey human rights.’’
Employees of Vigilance, a human rights group in Kratie, have also reported being threatened by the military, he said.
Loy Sophat, the governor of Kratie province, dismissed the allegations of a military run amok. He also said Kratie had “never had a problem with Funcinpec soldiers. No Funcinpec soldiers ran into the forest in Kratie” after the factional fighting in 1997, he insisted.
“They ran to O’Smach. There was re-integration in Kratie. Now it is peace, and there are only some robbers making trouble.’’
He said, however, that he would launch an investigation.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith, Ham Samnang, Phann Ana, Van Roeun, Kimsan Chantara and Kelly McEvers)