Former ministry official is main suspect in the torture and killing of three children
An arrest warrant has been issued for the main suspect in last year’s torture and murder of three children—the two daughters and a nephew of Royal Academy for the Judicial Professions Director Tep Darong—according to Interior Ministry and military police officials who said the suspect was a friend of the bereaved family.
Neang Bunthoeun, a former official with the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection, is suspected of torturing and killing the three children in May at the house of Mr Darong in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district, according to Mok Chito, chief of the Interior Ministry’s judicial police.
“We are still looking for him but he keeps running without stop,” Mr Chito said yesterday, adding that an arrest warrant was issued a week after the killing for Mr Bunthoeun, who was the director of law enforcement monitoring at the Inspection Ministry and an acquaintance of Mr Darong.
“We have had his personal data and the court has issued a warrant for only him,” Mr Chito said, adding that there was an accomplice but the police have not yet identified him.
On the morning of May 17 last year, Mr Bunthoeun and another man allegedly entered Mr Darong’s home, tied up the three children—Im Chanbory, 17, her adopted sister, Im Srey Pich, 15, and their cousin Im Raza, 4-taped their mouths shut and tortured them with electricity before finally killing them with blows to the head with a steel pipe. There was no signs of forced entry, and it appear the children recognized Mr Bunthoeun and allowed him to enter their house.
Before being killed, one of Mr Darong’s daughters was forced to call her mother, Im Sovannphalla, to ask her to return home.
Ms Sovannphalla was beaten unconscious with the same pipe when she returned, but survived her injuries. The attackers stole jewelry, about $26,000 in cash from the house and fled the scene in Ms Sovannphalla’s Toyota RAV4 vehicle.
At the time, Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth said that, given the brutality of the crime, robbery was not the motive for the triple killing. More likely, Mr Naruth said, the killings were coldly premeditated and the cruelty was by design.
Mr Chito also said yesterday that police are still uncertain as to why Mr Bunthoeun, allegedly, killed the children so brutally.
“It could not be revenge because [Mr Bunthoeun and Mr Darong’s family] had a good relationship for a long time,” he said. “And it is seemingly not because of a financial matter.”
According to Ms Sovannphalla, her children were accustomed to calling Mr Bunthoeun’s wife “mommy.”
During an interview in December with The Cambodia Daily, Ms Sovannphalla identified Mr Bunthoeun, a friend of the family for more than 20 years, as the one responsible for the killings.
“I still do not understand why he robbed me and killed my children,” she said at the time, adding that she reported to police that Mr Bunthoeun was the one who killed her family members. “Only Buddha can know his mind,” she said.
Mr Darong has repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story.
A week before the brutal killings, Mr Darong’s office came under public scrutiny in the media.
On May 11, Voice of America News aired a radio report citing unnamed students at the Royal Academy for the Judicial Professions who claimed they had to pay as much as $20,000 to $30,000 just to be eligible to become a judge after graduating.
Three days later on May 14, the VOA report prompted the Council of Ministers to call an urgent press conference, extraordinarily interrupting a public holiday, to refute the bribery allegations at the academy.
Speaking at a press conference, Mr Darong denied the bribery allegations and said he believed the VOA report stemmed from a lack of public knowledge about the way the school functions-a deficiency he tried to put to rest with a 21-minute presentation on how students become judges. Three days later, the three children were killed.
On May 22, VOA reported that a Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigation had been dropped into an allegation that a large bribe was paid to get a student into the academy.
That same day, VOA broadcast an attempt to interview Heng Vong Bunchhat, vice president of the Council of Jurists, over the bribery accusations.
Though no explicit mention of the children’s’ killings was made, Mr Vong Bunchhat told the interviewer: “Many people died, you know? You know that you hold a big responsibility in this case. You know it or not, your whole team? Now, the tragedy is not mine or related to me.”
Sea Sambath, chief of the judicial military police who has been investigating the almost nine-month-old case, said he did not know if the killings were related to anything contained in the VOA reports.
“I do not know this matter,” he said.
Ly Kimsov, director of personnel at the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection, said the Mr Bunthoeun disappeared around the time of the May 17 killings.
The ministry “removed his name as a staff member after they noticed he had never showed up,” he said.
Asked if the ministry believed that Mr Bunthoeun’s disappearance was related to the killings, Mr Kimsov said: “I do not know about that. I only heard that he was involved with the crime. He has a problem.”