The UN’s top human rights envoy to Cambodia on Wednesday expressed “grave concern” over the arrests and disappearances of opposition demonstrators and the alleged discoveries of 18 bodies following a Sept 7 government crackdown.
Even as the statement was released, corpses continued to surface in and around Phnom Penh.
The UN statement blamed police for two of the murders and said one of the dead—19-year-old Sath Sopheaktra—was reported to have taken part in demonstrations until the day before police fatally shot him.
“During the past week at least two people have been killed during demonstrations, while the bodies of 16 others have been found floating in rivers, in irrigation ditches and in shallow graves around the capital,” reported a statement from Thomas Hammarberg, the UN secretary-general’s special representative to Cambodia on human rights.
Hammarberg said he was “gravely concerned for the increasing number of arrests, disappearances, and discoveries of bodies being found in and around Phnom Penh since the government’s Sept 7 crackdown on opposition protesters.”
Government spokesmen and human rights commission members were not answering their telephones or had their telephones switched off in the hours following the early evening release of the statement.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told Reuters that the government was still investigating. “In order to connect one problem with another problem we need real evidence,” he said. “It’s too early to connect this to the demonstrations or the crackdown. Even before the demonstrations we found dead bodies.”
Four bodies have been examined by UN officers while multiple witnesses have confirmed details of the other 12, the statement said. Three bodies were those of women and two were clothed as Buddhist monks, the statement said.
“Many of the bodies bear signs of torture or other violence including bullet wounds and strangulation marks,” the statement said. “Several of the bodies had their hands tied behind their back and were gagged and blindfolded.”
The UN human rights office is investigating another 12 reports of bodies being found by villagers. Among the additional 12 was the body of a middle-aged man found floating in a pond in the capital’s outlying Russei Keo district. Fishermen discovered the corpse early Wednesday morning, although authorities said it is too early to identify the body or deduce a motive. The corpse is at least the third found in the last week in Russei Keo.
Based on witness reports, police believe the man was killed on the scene Sunday night. Villagers heard four muffled gunshots in the area on Sunday night and a yell for help, but found no body the next day, Khem Sophal, a commune police official, said Wednesday.
Khem Sophal said he believes the killers used a shotgun. The body apparently surfaced on the water overnight Tuesday, despite being wrapped in a hammock and weighted with bricks. The corpse was found blindfolded and gagged and appeared to have been shot four times, according to rights workers and officials.
In the capital’s Dangkao district, villagers at Wat Tuk Thla on Wednesday cremated a corpse found floating in a nearby canal. It is unknown whether the body was one of those previously examined by rights workers on Sunday, when two unidentified corpses were found.
Meanwhile, a top Kandal province police official said he has ordered his officers to remove a body seen floating Wednesday morning in the Mekong River in Leuk Dek district, about 40 km southeast of Phnom Penh. The body is rumored to be that of a monk and identification may be possible today, said Dom Vay, judicial police chief for Kandal.
Additionally, a rights worker said he examined a body that fishermen pulled out of the Mekong on the shores of Koh Kos on Wednesday morning, 25 km south of Phnom Penh. Damage to the body was so severe that identification may be impossible, he said. The cadaver’s hands were tied with thick nylon rope and the skull had been crushed, the rights worker said.
The only victim identified so far is Sath Sopheaktra, who was reported to have taken part in demonstrations up until Sept 8, the statement said. Authorities have said they killed Sath Sopheaktra and another man on Sept 9 in Russei Keo because the pair were robbers who were fleeing from police. The UN statement, however, said district military policemen took the men to the spot and executed them. The bodies were unearthed on Sept 10 from shallow graves.
Amnesty International on Tuesday also expressed concern over reports of alleged killings in connection with recent anti-government demonstrations. “The organization fears that some of those arrested may have been killed,” an Amnesty statement said.