As anniversary passes, mystery still surrounds the disappearance of ‘Brazil’
Before his disappearance, the only suspect in the 1997 grenade attack ever to be apprehended claimed he was innocent in a secret interview in Phnom Penh with UN human rights workers, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to declassified investigative summaries from the FBI, which conducted an abortive investigation into the March 30, 1997, attack in which 16 people died and over 100 were wounded, information about suspect Kong Samreth, alias Brazil, alias “a-khmao,” was the closest FBI investigators ever got to those they believed threw the grenades.
Dubbed “Brazil” because of his stocky appearance, Mr Samreth resembled the second of three published forensic sketches generated from FBI witness interviews with survivors of the attack.
Mr Samreth was detained in early June 1997 by Funcinpec forces in northern Phnom Penh after being sighted on National Road 4 in Kompong Speu province southwest of the provincial capital.
Though the FBI never interviewed Mr Samreth, he was secretly interviewed by the UN, which communicated information about this directly to the US agency, according to the files.
US officials first learned of Mr Samreth on June 10, 1997 when Funcinpec officials told the US Embassy they had apprehended Mr Samreth but did not know what to do with him.
In a statement that was reportedly videotaped, Mr Samreth allegedly told his Funcinpec interrogators that he was “terrified” and denied involvement in the attack. He did, however, say that “two others involved in the grenade incident had been taken by CPP police” and he believed that they had been killed, according to the FBI documents.
Though Funcipec officials, a source of continued and copious leaks about the FBI’s activities, pledged to keep Mr Samrith’s presence a secret, within days it was leaked to the press that he was being held at Tang Krasaing, which was then a Funcinpec stronghold near the Phnom Penh airport.
The pro-CPP Rasmei Kampuchea Daily wrote that “Brazil” was in fact a Funcinpec bodyguard. The pro-Sam Rainsy newspaper Odom Kate Khmer printed purported statements from Mr Samreth confessing to two prior attempts to kill Mr Rainsy. Funcinpec sources claimed that Mr Samreth, who worked as a guard in a Daun Penh district hotel, had undergone “one year’s terrorism training” in Vietnam, according to the FBI files.
Special Agent Thomas Nicoletti, the lead FBI investigator into the 1997 attack, wrote to his headquarters on June 14 that “the circle of people in Cambodia who were ‘bodyguards,’ ‘undercover agents,’ or ‘special forces,’ was probably fairly small and that the subjects could most likely be identified by former associates.”
With this information, the FBI’s liaison to the Cambodian police, Bangkok-based Legal Attache Ralph Horton, twice traveled to Phnom Penh between June 19 and 24, where he and an assistant on temporary duty attempted to arrange an FBI interview with Mr Samreth.
A member of the Cambodian police commission investigating the attack “agreed to attempt to arrange a preliminary interview of the subject identified in the press as ‘Brazil’ on Tuesday July 1, 1997,” Mr Horton wrote in a classified June 26 teletype to FBI headquarters.
Police, however, warned that the week of June 22 to 28 was “potentially volatile,” as US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh were due to visit Cambodia while “distrust and animosity” were “boiling up” between the CPP and Funcinpec-unhappy and often violent partners in the coalition government. Ms Albright later cancelled her scheduled trip.
On June 20, Mr Horton met with the Cambodian police commission investigating the grenade attack and asked if any interview had been attempted with the suspect in Funcinpec’s possession. Mr Horton, however, was told that the commission had never been officially notified of Mr Samreth’s existence.
Mr Horton wrote on July 1, according to the FBI files, that Funcinpec officials had offered to make Mr Samreth available to the FBI “unilaterally, or outside of the investigating committee.”
CPP police representatives said at a June 20 meeting that they “were not in favor of the FBI participating in any interview” of Mr Samreth, the documents show.
Mr Horton told FBI headquarters on June 26 that “it immediately became clear that the committee is as polarized as ever with opinions drawn down party lines in connection to this matter.”
As word of Mr Samreth’s existence circulated in FBI communications, headquarters planned to send Agent Nicoletti back to Cambodia to interview the suspect, something that was opposed by Mr Horton, who had personally ordered Mr Nicoletti’s departure from Phnom Penh on May 28 following reported threats against his life.
In an electronic communication of June 23, the FBI’s international relations section wrote to Mr Horton asking about a “proposed” return by Mr Nicoletti: “Discussion about his pending return is causing quite a stir here.”
Mr Horton replied the following day to say that he had not been told of this.
“Could you please fill me in? Based on what happened last time, I am against it,” he wrote in a reply dictated while in Phnom Penh.
On Friday June 27, the end of the week, the FBI’s international relations section wrote back to Mr Horton breaking the news that the FBI’s international terrorism section was directing Mr Nicoletti “back to Cambodia to complete the investigation.”
“They are very sensitive to your concerns,” they said. Mr Nicoletti “will be under your control while in country” they told Mr Horton.
On June 30, Honolulu Special Agent in Charge John Schiman told Dale Watson, the chief of the international terrorism section, that he was ready to deploy Mr Nicoletti to Cambodia “immediately” but that he could not arrive before July 3.
That departure was canceled after the US Embassy on July 1 denied the FBI permission to enter Cambodia due to an explosive article in The Washington Post that quoted sources as saying the FBI suspected that bodyguards of then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen were involved in the attack.
Full-scale fighting between forces loyal to Funcinpec and the CPP broke out on July 5 leading to the ouster of then-First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
However, Mr Horton informed the FBI on July 6 that Cambodian police learned on July 1, days before the fighting began, that Mr Samreth had disappeared.
An unnamed official in Phnom Penh “was reportedly furious” when Cambodian police were told that Mr Samreth had been interviewed “without […] the authority of the investigating commission,” he wrote.
The Interior Ministry had ordered that Funcinpec make Brazil available to it, but the ministry was told on or about July 1, 1997 that the suspect had “escaped.”
As Funcinpec’s then-First Deputy Chief of Staff, Nhiek Bun Chhay took Mr Samreth into custody in July 1997.
A person answering the door at the home of Mr Bun Chhay in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district this week said that Mr Bun Chhay, who is now Funcinpec Secretary-General, was ill and could not be contacted.
You Hockry, who served as Funcinpec Co-Minister of the Interior in 1997, said yesterday that he believed that Brazil had escaped after the outbreak of fighting on July 5, not before, as Mr Horton’s message claimed.
“I think after the coup he escaped and then after that I was not sure about his whereabouts,” Mr Hockry said.
“Nhiek Bun Chhay evacuated the camp at Tang Krasaing and then at that time we did not know about” the whereabouts of Mr Samreth, he said.
FBI headquarters on July 14 wrote to Mr Horton and to the Honolulu Division to say, given Mr Horton’s report on Brazil’s whereabouts and the outbreak of fighting in Cambodia, “the chances are slim” that Mr Samreth “will ever be interviewed.”
However, Mr Nicoletti wrote that UN human rights workers in Phnom Penh had already conducted an interview with the suspect.
In teletype composed in Honolulu on July 4, Mr Nicoletti said he had been contacted on June 30, 1997 by a UN human rights official in Phnom Penh who offered to fly to Honolulu to brief him concerning “important new developments” in the grenade attack investigation.
“Funding for this trip was authorized by his superiors at the United Nations,” Mr Nicoletti wrote, adding that the caller from the UN had been permitted to interview Mr Samreth on June 27 in Phnom Penh.
According to the UN human rights worker, Mr Samreth was “not under arrest,” was “in good condition and cooperative.”
In his interview with the UN, the suspect “denied being at the March 30 rally” but identified someone else, “very similar in appearance to himself” as the grenade thrower, Mr Nicoletti wrote.
“He admitted receiving a radio message from this individual on March 30th advising that ‘the attack has been carried out,’” Mr Nicoletti continued, citing the UN staffer.
Under surveillance, another individual matching Mr Samreth’s description was observed at a Phnom Penh restaurant and gymnasium, according to Mr Nicoletti.
“This similar appearing subject, who definitely resembles composite sketch #2, appeared to have no fear or apprehension or recognition,” Mr Nicoletti wrote, noting that he had not given instructions for the surveillance to be carried out.
Mr Nicoletti also reported extensive information sharing from the UN concerning so-called military “Alpha teams” and how they operated in Cambodia.
Mr Nicoletti added: “There were previously reported to FBI headquarters by teletype as ‘CPP controlled criminal hit teams agreeable to conducting political violence.’”
According to UN files, Mr Nicoletti wrote, Alpha-team unit A9-2 was assigned to “covert disruption of legitimate political activity;” unit A9-3 was charged with defending “outlining CPP province political posts” while A9-0 was intended to “retaliate for past political offenses against the CPP.”
In addition to the “alpha teams,” there were “reaction teams” and “special unit 246,” Mr Nicoletti wrote.
Mr Nicoletti continued that on May 7, 1993, officials from the Untac peacekeeping mission confronted the CPP with these finding about the Alpha teams and “threatened to arrest the CPP representatives and modify the terms of the 1991 Paris Agreement unless the CPP fully disclosed the details of these illegal activities.”
Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat said on Monday that he was unaware of such military units.
Senior officials in the Interior Ministry and the prime minister’s personal bodyguard unit have vehemently denied any involvement in the 1997 attack.
Following the attack, then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Sam Rainsy of orchestrating the attack on his own protest rally in a bid to cast the shadow of blame over the CPP.
However, Thomas Hammarberg, then-UN human rights envoy to Cambodia, reported to the UN General Assembly in 1997 on the results of a UN investigation into the grenade attack which, like the FBI, concluded that soldiers had been seen protecting the grenade throwers and they made their escape from the scene of the massacre 13-years ago this week.