Three witnesses to a fatal traffic accident in Kandal Province last week involving a high-ranking Tourism Ministry official have refuted the police account of what happened, insisting there was no mystery third vehicle on which authorities have pinned the blame.
According to police, Nuon Someth, an undersecretary of state at the Tourism Ministry and former deputy governor of Phnom Penh, was at the wheel of his Toyota Land Cruiser on April 12, driving toward the capital on National Road 1, when an oncoming truck straddling the centerline clipped the SUV on the left.
Deputy Kien Svay district police chief Prum Samnang said on Monday that the impact had left Mr. Someth’s SUV with a flat front left tire, causing him to lose control of the vehicle and veer into the oncoming lane, where he struck a motorbike.
Mith Sothea, 38, who was driving the motorbike, died at the scene. His wife, Khorn Yeth, remained in Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital on Tuesday with critical injuries.
Also on Monday, Kandal Provincial Court prosecutor Lim Sokuntha said Mr. Someth’s family quickly arranged a $5,500 payout for Mith Sothea’s family. He ordered the undersecretary’s release from police custody that evening on the grounds that the alleged collision with the truck absolved him of guilt.
Mr. Samnang said the police account was based on interviews with two witnesses and that the truck driver who had allegedly set the fatal crash in motion fled the scene in the truck and remained at large.
On Tuesday, however, three witnesses to the accident gave identical accounts of what happened, contradicting the police. All three spoke to a reporter on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
According to the three witnesses, Mr. Someth’s SUV never struck a truck and was driving in the oncoming lane when it crashed into the motorbike.
“I was sitting at a small motorbike repair shop on the day it happened. I saw the vehicle crash very hard with the motorbike carrying the people,” said one witness. “There was no truck that hit the vehicle like the police said.”
“I saw the vehicle crash with the motorbike on the left side of the road, so the vehicle was wrong,” the man said.
“There was no truck that hit the vehicle,” said a second witness. “There was only the vehicle that crashed into the motorbike, because at that time it was very quiet. No other cars or motorbikes were driving there.”
A third witness said the same: “I only saw the vehicle crash into the motorbike. I did not see any other vehicle driving there at the time the accident happened.”
Photographs of the scene taken by a local reporter soon after the accident show the Land Cruiser lying on its left side at the bottom of a small embankment. The front left corner of the SUV is caved in, but the front left tire does not appear to be flat, as police claimed. The tire only appears flat in another photo of the vehicle taken later at the district police station.
Contacted on Tuesday, Mr. Samnang, the deputy district police chief, stuck to his original account of the accident.
“His Excellency’s [Mr. Someth’s] vehicle was hit by the truck, which caused the vehicle to crash into the motorbike, because we saw that the left part of the vehicle was seriously broken. If the vehicle had crashed into the motorbike directly, his vehicle would not have been damaged seriously like that,” he said.
Mr. Samnang said in the morning that he would call a reporter back with the names of the witnesses who he claimed told police about the truck. He did not call back and, when contacted in the afternoon, said he could not recall their names and could not retrieve them because he had already left his office for the day.
As for the front left tire of the SUV, Mr. Samnang said “experts” had determined that it must have been flat prior to the crash with the motorbike.
“I did not see the vehicle right after it happened, but according to analysts and experts we concluded that the vehicle’s tire got a flat,” he said. “When I saw the vehicle when it was brought to the district police office, its tire was flat.”
The first witness interviewed yesterday also said that after the accident he overheard one of the passengers in the Land Cruiser, a young man, scolding the driver of the SUV for ignoring his advice not to drive while intoxicated.
“So I think the driver [of the SUV] was drunk and he lost control and caused the accident,” the witness said.
Mr. Samnang said there was no equipment on hand to test Mr. Someth’s blood alcohol level on the day of the accident, but that the official did not appear to be intoxicated by the time he arrived at the district station.
“I knew he was not drunk because we saw that he was behaving normally when he spoke to us and there was no alcohol smell,” he said. “He also told us that he had not had any alcohol.”
Mr. Someth could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. He hung up on a reporter when contacted on Monday.
Sarom Sokha, a nephew of Mith Sothea, the dead motorbike driver, said on Tuesday that Ms. Yeth was still in emergency care at Calmette. In addition to the broken bones in her neck, he said, doctors said her left leg and left arm were also fractured and that she would likely be permanently disabled.
He said the family had accepted the $5,500 payout, which came with a promise not to press charges, because they needed the money to cover the hospital expenses.
Rights groups say poor Cambodians often agree to settle out of court because they have little hope of winning cases against wealthy and well-connected opponents, given the country’s corrupt judiciary.
“When a problem happens, the people who have lots of money will win,” said one of the witnesses to last week’s crash. “The poor people will get injustice.”