The Mystery Behind 1997 Grenade Attack Continues to Inspire Flurries of Controversy

Meters from where shrapnel ripped through a crowd of protesters and sowed fear into Cambodia’s budding democracy movement seven years ago, Jackson Cox stepped to a microphone Tuesday in front of the survivors of the March 30, 1997 grenade attack.

The seventh-anniversary commemoration ceremony was marked by subdued speeches appealing for calm and peace, but Cox’s words called for justice.

“It is important to remember that they gave their lives in a demonstration to show disappointment with government corruption,” said Cox, country director of the Washington-based International Republican Institute. “They gave their lives demanding justice. Yet today we still wait for justice to be rendered for that brutal attack.”

“If Cambodian justice officials can’t solve this crime, maybe the American [Federal Bureau of Investigation] can,” he said to the applause of some 400 opposition supporters.

Cox is one in a growing chorus of Cambodian and US officials urging the FBI to finish the job it started seven years ago. The 1997 attack on an anti-corruption rally near the National Assembly killed at least 16 and injured more than 120. It led to an FBI investigation—and, some say, an FBI cover-up—that has remained open but essentially dormant since mid-1997.

But last month a bipartisan group of high-profile senators, including several US Democratic Party members, publicly urged FBI Director Robert Mueller to resume the probe. Cox, whose IRI is closely aligned with the opposition party, hailed the announcement as evidence of new movement in Washington toward resolving the investigation.

In addition, Sam Rainsy took his grievance for the attack to the country’s courts for the first time, filing a lawsuit in February that accuses Prime Minister Hun Sen of masterminding a massacre. A prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court is reviewing Sam Rainsy’s complaint to see if it merits a judge’s consideration.

There are subtle indications that the FBI may again investigate the case, said Ron Abney, who was country director of IRI at the time and was injured in the attack.

Abney’s injury—a shrapnel wound to the hip that still causes a limp—paved the way for the FBI to come to Phnom Penh under a law permitting investigations of terrorist attacks overseas that harm US citizens. Now a 62-year-old political consultant based in Washington, Abney wrote in a recent e-mail that he continues to lobby the FBI to resume its investigation.

“I have recently met with the FBI and they are working out the details of coming back to Cambodia to continue the investigation,” he wrote.

“I know the truth and so does the FBI. You’d think that would be enough, but a lot of reputations are at stake and some are very highly placed, so it’s tough sledding,” he wrote.

There are several theories as to why the FBI withdrew from Cambodia in May 1997 and iced its inconclusive investigation. Sam Rainsy and opposition activists say the US State Department, seeking to avoid conflict, muzzled the investigators and obfuscated a classified FBI report. Others say the agents’ lives were threatened. In the conclusion to its November 1998 unclassified report, the FBI said “all investigative leads are complete.”

The Cambodian government has in fact invited the FBI back—informally. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, who was a government translator assigned to the FBI in 1997, joked this week that he would be happy to see FBI Special Agent Tom Nicoletti return to Phnom Penh.

“Tom Nicoletti is my close friend, but he left without saying goodbye,” he jested, referring to an agent who arrived in 1997 and has since been taken off the case.

While the government made a public invitation to the FBI last month in local media, observers say it must officially invite the US if it truly hopes to resume a joint investigation. Such an invitation has not been made, said an official at the US Embassy in Bangkok.

“No, we have no indication of any formal invitation from the Royal Government of Cambodia to the FBI to return or resume investigative assistance,” the official said in an e-mail this week.

As a result, despite the attack’s recent return to public attention, Sam Rainsy said he was “no more, no less optimistic” that the FBI might return. “The situation is the same,” he said. “But if Om Yentieng or Khieu Sopheak sent a written request, [the FBI] might actually come.”

What would the FBI find? For the three main suspects who are believed to have confessed to carrying out the attack, their fate may have been dire. The man called Brazil has not been seen since 1997. Suspects Chay Vee and Chom Bun Theun apparently have gone missing.

The last reported movement of Brazil was in July 1997, when he is believed to have escaped from the custody of royalist General Nhiek Bun Chay in the chaos sparked by skirmishing between CPP and Funcinpec forces that year.

In his interview with the FBI at the time, Chom Bun Theun said he had seen Brazil’s corpse later in 1997, near a military base in Tang Kasang, a former Funcinpec base near Phnom Penh International Airport. The FBI considered Brazil a major suspect, but never interviewed him.

Chom Bun Theun and Chhay Vee also disappeared shortly after Nov 13, 1998, when they publicly retracted their earlier confessions to carrying out the attack. Khieu Sopheak said this week he had no knowledge of their whereabouts. Sam Rainsy said Chom Bun Theun was seen sometime shortly after
he recanted, and never again.

“I think yes [they are dead], but I have no evidence. Brazil just disappeared. It’s likely [he is dead]. It’s in the habit of death squads to kill those who do the dirty jobs. They do it in a very systematic manner,” Sam Rainsy said.

Said Abney: “I am sure they are dead.”

According to an October 1999 US Senate report, however, Om Yentieng told a follow-up Senate delegation that Brazil was alive.

He “stated the suspect Brazil was alive and his whereabouts were known to the government of Cambodia…. When [Om Yentieng] was pressed for Brazil’s whereabouts or whether he was in custody or under surveillance, Om [Yentieng] became evasive. When asked if he planned to interview Brazil before he issued his report on the grenade attack, Om [Yentieng] replied negatively, stating that Brazil was a ‘secondary’ matter,” said the report by James Doran, a staffer at the US Senate’s East Asian Affairs Office.

Om Yentieng declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Deputy Director-General of National Police Teng Savong, who headed the government’s investigation team.

Khieu Sopheak, however, said this week that Brazil has been dead almost seven years. According to him, the professional killer who carried out the attack and escaped capture fell off the back of a moving truck and died of head injuries.

“Brazil had been serving as a bodyguard to a VIP—I don’t want to mention his name. He had been moved to serve as bodyguard to a high-ranking party official of one party,” Khieu Sopheak said.

“He died accidentally by falling off a car,” he said, adding that the confusion of government infighting in 1997 made arresting Brazil difficult.

“We had found the suspect,” Khieu Sopheak said.

CPP officials have repeatedly pegged Sam Rainsy as responsible for the attack. They theorize that the budding opposition leader was buying tragedy at his followers’ expense in order to gain public sympathy and curry favor and attention from democracy activists in the West.

When told of Khieu Sopheak’s statements this week, Sam Rainsy took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“They are playing a game of confusion,” he said.

Sam Rainsy said Khieu Sopheak’s Brazil explanation was obliquely referencing a former bodyguard, 24-year-old Seng Ky, who indeed fell off a moving car and died in the weeks following the attack.

But Seng Ky is not Brazil, he said.

“Brazil was never a bodyguard for the Sam Rainsy Party. He has a long history, rather, involving dirty jobs done for the CPP,” Sam Rainsy said. He pointed to an FBI sketch of a square-jawed military type, portraying Brazil. The opposition leader has said the attackers were members of death squads, trained in Thailand and Vietnam.

“He comes from a group of thugs hired by the CPP on many occasions,” Sam Rainsy said.

Khieu Sopheak declined to say why the suspect he described as Brazil carried out the attack, or if he received orders from the opposition.

The CPP-led government had fulfilled all of the FBI’s requested interviews in 1997, said Khieu Sopheak. The FBI, however, claimed that the government blocked access to Brazil in 1997.

The Interior Ministry spokesman also declined to release more information on the Cambodian government’s findings on the attack, citing the sanctity of an ongoing investigation, but he scoffed at the notion that Hun Sen, his elite bodyguard unit or any CPP element could have been involved. Any further FBI investigation would find the same, he said.

“How can the party in power create a very ridiculous thing like this to kill people?” Khieu Sopheak said. “We don’t point at anybody, but we can say that it is not the ruling party.”

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