The only man arrested in connection with the apparently racially motivated mob killing of a Vietnamese-Cambodian man in the capital’s Meanchey district in February was acquitted yesterday due to a lack of evidence.
Presiding judge Kor Vandy said Phnom Penh Municipal Court had dropped all charges and ordered the release of suspect Bun Chanvutha, who was arrested in February after a mob, seemingly motivated by cries that a Vietnamese man was fighting Cambodians, gathered and beat to death 28-year-old Tran Van Chien at the scene of a minor traffic accident.
“Based on the hearings, the court has found that there was not enough evidence to show that Bun Chanvuth, male, 51, had beaten or killed … Van Chien, male, 28, a Vietnamese-Cambodian, as accused,” Vandy said.
“Therefore, the court has decided to drop the charges against him and order his release from prison,” he continued. “The plaintiff has the right to appeal this court’s decision to a higher court within 30 days if they do not accept it.”
Van Chien was killed on February 15 when he arrived at the scene of a minor traffic accident involving his younger brother. An argument broke out and escalated into a scuffle, though one witness said at the time that it was unclear how the altercation began.
However, when a bystander shouted that “yuon were fighting Khmer” – using a term for Vietnamese considered offensive by some – a mob quickly formed and turned on Van Chien, who attempted to flee before being cornered and killed, police said at the time.
According to police, some 10 people were seen attacking Van Chien, though Chanvutha was the only person present that could be arrested.
Chanvutha yesterday maintained his innocence, saying he had been at the scene because the beating occurred just outside his house. Rather than inciting or participating in the violence, he said, he had actually tried to intervene on Van Chien’s behalf. In the days after the killing, witnesses said in interviews that Chanvutha had not been among the attackers.
“I am happy, as the court has found the truth and justice for me, and is releasing me,” Chanvutha said yesterday outside the courtroom.
“But I was very disappointed about my arrest, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he continued. “It was very unjust.… I was jailed for about five months without having made a mistake.”
News of the killing prompted debate about the deep-seated anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodian society, and about the role of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party – and its frequent, at times inflammatory, anti-Vietnamese rhetoric – in cultivating it.
The CNRP vehemently denied that its rhetoric bore any responsibility for Van Chien’s death, and the party released a statement “appeal[ing] to all people to put an end to all forms of violent culture” and urging tolerance towards “all people regardless of religion or race, [or whether] they are Khmers or foreigners”.
Despite being singled out for his ethnicity, Van Chien was born in Cambodia – as were his parents – and spoke Khmer, his wife said after his death.
Though a large crowd had gathered at the scene, Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc, said yesterday that it was often difficult to gather evidence in mob violence cases, and that such cases were “rarely punished”, regardless of a given case’s racial dimension.
“The problem is the witnesses. When the mob is angry like this, no one wants to testify, no one wants to be a witness, so it’s harder for the police to get collaboration from the people,” he said.
“Even [in cases of mob violence against] criminals or robbers or thieves, no one dares to say ‘stop’ because the mob could beat them too.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE