KAMPONG CHAM - The relics of a death lay on a table marked "Evidence":
a tattered blanket, a pair of flip-flops, four bottles of water and the jeans with
which the dead man may or may not have hanged himself. Four policeman sat in the
dock, sweating and looking nervous.
Thus opened a rare trial in which Cambodian government employees faced criminal charges.
Normally civil servants are immune from prosecution unless permission is given from
higher-ups, as stipulated by Article 51 of the civil servants' law.
But in this case, under heavy pressure from diplomats and human rights groups, the
Kampong Cham court gained permission to try Kroch Chmar district police inspector
Rong Vo and policemen Kuth Rithy, Keov Chamnan and Sam Sameth for manslaughter.
The April 10 trial concerned the Jan 13, 1996, death in police custody of Liv Peng
The police contended that An hanged himself in his holding cell.
An's widow, Cheng Kim Sreang, said the police had beaten her husband to death.
The two sides traded testimony; the widow and her sister said they had found the
dead man bloody, bruised and with broken ribs. He had jeans around his neck, but
they were only loosely tied to the window and he was shackled at the hands and feet.
The police said they had not hurt Liv Peng An, though they admitted the body had
broken ribs and was shackled. They produced photos of the body - fully clothed -
to back up their statements. Both the prosecution and the defense entered conflicting
medical testimonies into the record.
The plaintiff's attorney, Te Cham Nan, said in closing: "This is illegal and
a violation of human rights also. The reason the victim died in police custody is
because of torture, not hanging."
Defense attorney Suon Buon Rith countered: "There is no evidence to say the
perpetrators did it... the police wouldn't ever do a stupid thing like that."
Judge Keo Son, who deliberated for one hour of the five-hour proceeding, said: "I
want to decide on the basis of truth, but both lawyers just say untrue things."
He then announced his verdict: not guilty, for all the defendants.
The loss was bitter for widow Cheng Kim Sreang, who had successfully brought a case
against police inspector Rong Vo last year. Found guilty of detaining Sreng's husband
without charges longer than the allowed 48-hour period, Rong Vo was stripped of his
police post and fined 2 million riel compensation.
But he did not pay Sreang, and now she is worried that the new decision may override
Human rights workers who attended the trial said they were disappointed in the verdict,
especially after Sreang's unusual court victory last year.
"But there was little evidence to point to any one person [killing An],"
one rights worker noted.
Sreang was angry and defiant after the ruling. "It was an unjust verdict, I
do not agree with it. We had enough evidence," she said, adding that she would
"I don't like what the police say, because they don't say the truth."