Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew Nhim Sophea has spent the past few months working, studying and traveling throughout Asia as he tries to leave his past behind and embark on a new start, his father said on Tuesday.
“He has to consider which way he wants to go,” said Nhim Chandara, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Following what appears to have been a little-known hearing in August, three Appeals Court judges cleared Nhim Sophea of an involuntary manslaughter conviction that was handed down by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in March in connection with the fatal shooting of two innocent passersby after a car crash in October 2003.
Presiding Judge Thou Mony said the court found Sam Doeun, a 22-year-old man of whom little is known and who is still at large, was the only person responsible for the killing.
Sam Doeun was convicted in absentia of intentional manslaughter and traffic violations by the Municipal Court in March and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
On Oct 27, 2003, Nhim Sophea and several friends were traveling at high speed in a convoy of cars after leaving a party at the home of a high-ranking official.
One of the cars drove into a parked coconut truck, killing Long Mao, 19, who was unloading the truck’s cargo.
As Nhim Sophea’s group attempted to free their friend who was trapped by an airbag, and as they tried to remove the vehicle’s license plates, a crowd of onlookers started to gather.
One member of Nhim Sophea’s group grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle from the trunk of one of their vehicles and opened fire on the crowd, killing Ou Sitha, 40, and his 18-year-old niece Phal Vany who were driving past the scene of the crash.
Identified by police as the gunman, Nhim Sophea went on the run and was not arrested until Nov 26.
On Tuesday, Nhim Chandara said he encouraged his 23-year-old son to travel abroad to escape the bad influences of his friends and try to establish a normal life.
He said that a group of friends was responsible for much of Nhim Sophea’s bad behavior in the past and his son had expressed concern that he was falling under their influence.
“What I worry is he has bad friends,” Nhim Chandara said by telephone. “Sometimes I was told by him that it was hard to control himself. When he was young he really cared for people. I don’t know what happened.”
“It is also my mistake,” Nhim Chandara added. “Since 1993, I have worked hard for the government and I have no time to care for my children.”
Nhim Chandara said his son was spending most of his time in China studying English and Chinese and working for computer companies.
He said he didn’t know how long Nhim Sophea would remain in China.
He said he didn’t know exactly what happened the night of the crash and shooting. “I trust my son,” he said. “He is not crazy.”
Nhim Chandara denied his son’s relationship with Hun Sen had anything to do with the Appeals Court overturning the Municipal Court decision.
“He does not want what happened to affect Hun Sen,” Nhim Chandara said. “We are different families, different houses. He is my son.”
News of Nhim Sophea’s release came only days after Hun Sen praised the court officials who put his nephew behind bars and said the children of government officials who commit crimes will not be protected from the law.
“Children of government officials must be punished like normal children. We cannot forgive them, otherwise we cannot find equity in our society,” he told the country’s top officials at a two-day seminar on good governance Thursday.
“I thanked the judge who prosecuted my nephew because my nephew is safer staying in prison because if he is outside, he will cause more trouble,” Hun Sen added.
Nhim Chandara said he didn’t know whether the prime minister knew of Nhim Sophea’s release when he made those comments.
He also said he couldn’t recall ever knowing Sam Doeun.
“I have many friends and they all have children,” he said. “I cannot say who is who.”
While Cambodia’s court system has cleared Nhim Sophea of all wrong-doing, the victims of the car crash are still looking for justice.
The victims and their families spoke in their Takeo province home on Tuesday of Long Mao, the vendor who was killed when the car hit the coconut truck, and Sun Lai, 23, who spent 16 days in a coma after being hurled from the truck and striking his head.
Sun Lai awoke only to have his wife divorce him because he could no longer make money for their family.
“I live half a life,” Sun Lai said on Tuesday, adding that he still experiences pain almost daily from the injuries to his head.
Sun Lai said he was promised $750 in compensation by Tong Seng, father of Seng Sovann, one of the men who was in the convoy, but he has been paid only $400.
But even the full compensation wouldn’t buy him back his life, he said.
Long Mao’s mother, Sam Vorn, said she still cries when she remembers her dead son.
“I lost my son, I lost everything because my family depended on him,” she said, adding she had also received only $400 of a promised $750 in compensation.
“It sounds like my son’s life is cheaper than a cow,” she said. “If you bring that boy [Nhim Sophea] here, I would beat him….”
Both Sam Vorn and Sun Lai said they did not know Nhim Sophea was ever found guilty, let alone that he was acquitted and is now free.
They also never received an invitation to the Appeals Court hearing.
“I don’t know how to deal with this because I am just a farmer and these are rich people,” Sam Vorn said.
Kek Galabru, president of Licadho, said representatives from the various NGOs that make up the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the case.
She said the NGOs agreed to investigate the Appeals Court decision and find out why the hearing was held behind closed doors.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, did not answer repeated phone calls Tuesday.