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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Impunity in Cambodia: how human

Impunity in Cambodia: how human


In a new report issued today, Adhoc, Licadho and Human Rights Watch investigate

what has been called the single most important obstacle to establishing the rule

of law in Cambodia - impunity. A two-month investigation shows the failure of the

Government to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations, and documents the

scale of the problem.

  • A brothel owner in Banteay Meanchey province with connections to high-ranking

    military beats a prostitute to death in front of more than a dozen witnesses. He

    is detained, then released allegedly for lack of evidence.

  • The bodyguards of a provincial governor in Kompong Speu catch a sixteen-year-old

    boy who has scaled the wall of the governor's compound to steal chickens. They tie

    him up and torture him, and then pump more than ten machine gun bullets into his

    body, killing him instantly. No action is taken against them.

  • Soldiers in Kompong Thom arrest ten fishermen suspected of cow theft. They are

    marched to a secluded clearing, where they are tied up, searched, and tortured. When

    one of the men tries to run, the soldiers execute nine of the men.

  • A member of the commune militia in Takeo breaks up a holiday celebration of a

    popular opposition leader in the village - saying the people are "making too

    much noise"- by shooting five people one by one. He returns later to finish

    off two of the wounded people with a grenade. Police visit but take no action.


The bodies of six of the nine fishermen executed by soldiers

at Kompong Thom in April last year

While all of these incidents happened more than one year ago, none of the perpetrators

have been brought to justice, nor, in most cases, have local law enforcement or judicial

officials launched more than token investigations.

While the judiciary, military, and police force face huge challenges because of the

lack of resources and funds allocated to criminal justice, the lack of accountability

of government authorities for human rights violations cannot be solved solely by

an infusion of funds for equipment and technical training. A key problem is the lack

of political will and determination by the government to prosecute known perpetrators

of human rights violations and criminal offenses, cases that have been extensively

documented by local and international human rights organizations and the United Nations.

The impunity report was based in part on a study by Adhoc and Licadho that found

that between January 1997 and October 1998 at least 263 people were allegedly killed

by police, military, gendarmerie, militia, or civil servants.

The majority of the killings were not politically motivated but nonetheless constitute

grave human rights abuses. Roughly half of the killings were committed by soldiers

with another 22 percent by police.

To the knowledge of the human rights organizations, not one of the perpetrators has

been brought to justice, nor were most of the killings even investigated.

There are a number of reasons why many human rights offenders never face justice,

including the lack of neutrality and independence of the judicial and law enforcement

systems as well as a low level of professionalism in these bodies. Furthermore, Article

51 of the Common Statutes on Civil Servants, which gives Ministries the right to

waive prosecution of their employees, in fact provides a form of state-sanctioned

impunity to civil servants, police, and military. Other reasons for impunity include

the lack of control over weapons, poor cooperation between the police and the courts,

and corruption.

Excessive use of lethal force and misuse of weapons by law enforcement officials

also poses a problem. Decades of war have left behind a culture of violence where

the instant reaction to an apparent crime is to kill the perpetrator, rather than

waiting for a case to work its way through the politicized, weak, and often corrupt

court system.

In Phnom Penh, for example, at least one in every 13 arrests during 1998 resulted

in either death or injury; out of 1,152 arrests, police killed 76 people and wounded


The following case studies, excerpted from the rights organizations' report, illustrate

the problem of impunity at the provincial level. These are not isolated incidents;

similar failures of the justice system happen every day in Cambodia.

Bodyguard kills teenage boy

Before daybreak on the morning of February 23, 1998, three bodyguards for the Kompong

Speu provincial governor fatally shot 16-year-old Soy Sophea, pumping more than a

dozen AK-47 bullets into his body after he scaled the walls of the governor's compound.

A person living near the governor's house said that he was woken up about 3a.m. to

hear the sound of running in the governor's compound, following by cries of "Thief!


"I heard fighting in the governor's compound, then [the sound of] beating and

someone crying out 'Oy! Oy! Don't beat me, I steal only chickens.' About half an

hour later I heard many shots."

Several hours later the boy's sister was told to go and identify his body. "He

had a bullet wound behind the ear, and there were marks of beating on his neck, like

they used an iron bar," she said. "There were black bruises on each arm

from being tied up, and also on his face. His middle left finger was broken. There

were many bullet wounds and lots of blood in the lower part of his body. From his

waist to his knees there were many bullet wounds. Maybe they used a whole box of

bullets from an AK-47."

An NGO worker familiar with the case said, "It's Khmer tradition to kill a thief

upon arrest. However, when they caught the boy they did not shoot him immediately.

First he was tortured, and then shot."

Police reports did not mention any torture but stated that a group of thieves jumped

into the governor's compound "in order to steal the governor's property"

and that police on duty at the time "shot to death one thief".

More than a year after the killing of Soy Sophea, no charges have been filed, nor

has a lawyer been authorized to represent the boy's family. Meanwhile the three bodyguards

are reportedly still at work in the provincial town.

The prosecutor at the Kompong Speu Court said the delay was due to the lack of response

from the Ministry of Justice to a letter he wrote in August 1998, asking for authorization

to file charges against the bodyguards. Under Article 51 of the civil servants code,

until the prosecutor receives approval from the bodyguards' supervising ministry,

which in this case is the Ministry of Interior, charges cannot be filed nor can lawyers

be assigned to the case.

The family of Soy Sophea contacted Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) in April 1998 to request

legal assistance. However, until the prosecutor files charges, no lawyer can be officially

appointed to the case.

A year after the murder of Soy Sophea, his sister said: "I have no hope. The

case has gone completely quiet. No one has been helpful in pushing this case, because

it involves powerful men. The small people don't dare do anything against them. When

I go to the provincial office, local government workers encourage me to drop the

case. An egg cannot break a stone, they say."

Pimp murders young woman

Meach Bunrith is known as the most powerful brothel owner and most abusive pimp in

the border town of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey. He is also thought to be one of the

biggest traffickers of women to Thailand, operating with powerful military backing.

On June 17, 1998 Meach Bunrith severely beat Nguyen Thi Poeung, a twenty-four-year-old

woman who worked in his brothel. Four days later, she died in a local clinic. On

June 25, three prostitutes, one of whom had been previously in touch with Adhoc,

escaped from Meach Bunrith's brothel and reported the death of Nguyen Thi Poeung

to Poipet police.

On June 26, a mixed force of gendarmes, police, military, and militia raided the

brothel. Meach Bunrith was arrested on charges of involuntary manslaughter and transferred

to the provincial prison. Twenty-one prostitutes were released in the raid and the

brothel was then closed.

The raid, brothel closure, and arrest were hailed as a major victory by human rights

workers. But less than three months later, the provincial court dismissed the case

for lack of evidence and freed Meach Bunrith, who soon reopened his brothel.

The evidence against Meach Bunrith was overwhelming. Immediately after Meach Bunrith's

arrest, personnel from Military Region Five and the gendarmerie obtained detailed

witness statements from more than a dozen women attesting to the fact that they had

witnessed the fatal beating.

They said Meach Bunrith beat Nguyen Thi Poeung after she refused to have sex with

customers because she had recently had an abortion.

He hit her on her stomach with the flat side of a cleaver, kicked her thigh, and

stepped on her abdomen several times, causing her to bleed heavily. He then dragged

her to the bathroom, where he dumped her next to the filthy latrine area for the

night, where rats and cockroaches ran over her body. Afterwards, she was deprived

of medical attention for three days. Meach Bunrith finally took her to a private

clinic on June 20, and she died the next day.

One of the women stated in her affidavit to the gendarmes: "I saw Meach Bunrith

take a knife to beat the victim's stomach strongly, and he kicked her left thigh.

Meach Bunrith warned her not to cry out or shout.

"None of us dared to help because we were afraid of the pimp. The pimp's brother,

Rath, was about to hit her with a water pipe, but Rith said he wanted to do it himself.

We sat outside the house. Afterwards she bled a lot."

Another girl, 19, stated: "Rith always tortured every girl in the house."

Meach Bunrith's version of the story is that Nguyen Thi Poeung was very drunk the

evening of June 17, breaking glasses and making too much noise in the dancing bar

where she was working, so he had some of the other girls bring her back to the brothel.

Once at the brothel she refused to go inside, Meach Bunrith said.

"She shouted and lay down in the mud and refused to enter the house," Meach

Bunrith said in his statement to the investigating judge. "I threatened and

hit Poeung but did not cause her to be injured or unconscious."

Several days later, he said, Poeung began bleeding after taking traditional medicine

for an abortion so Meach Bunrith brought her to the clinic, where she died.

Despite these witness testimonies, on September 15, 1998, the Banteay Meanchey investigating

judge ordered the charges against Meach Bunrith dismissed, saying the court lacked

sufficient evidence and witnesses. The prosecutor did not appeal the judge's order.

On November 16, human rights groups expressed their concerns about Meach Bunrith's

release, the prosecutor general of the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh instructed the

Banteay Meanchey court to reopen the file and prosecute the brothel owner for voluntary

manslaughter, battery with injury, and human trafficking. The prosecutor general

also recommended that the case be sent to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Council

of Magistracy's Disciplinary Council.

Soon after, a delegation from the Ministry of Justice traveled to Poipet on a fact-finding

mission. The delegation concluded that both the judge and the prosecutor had made

mistakes in their judgments.

Specifically they found that the court should have charged Meach Bunrith with assault

to cause injury because he had admitted assaulting the victim. In addition Meach

Bunrith should have been charged with illegal brothel operation because he admitted

during his questioning that he worked as a pimp and brothel owner.

The judge, however, has continued to state that the investigation is at a standstill,

and the charges cannot be changed, because no witnesses can be found. He also said

that Bunrith would not be charged with operating a brothel even though it was against

the law. "If we change the charge to 'operating a brothel,' it's an injustice

to Bunrith, because there are many brothel owners in Poipet, and many prostitutes

as well," he said.

At the time of the Meach Bunrith's release, Banteay Meanchey Governor Duong Khem

alleged in a story in the Cambodia Daily that Meach Bunrith had paid about US$4,000

to court officials for his release. The investigating judge denied that the court

took bribes and claimed instead that the whole case was a set-up by the gendarmerie

to extort money from the brothel owner.

An Adhoc staff person said part of the difficulty with the case was that the victim's

only relative in Poipet was afraid to file an appeal: "She was afraid that Meach

Bunrith would kill her. After he was released from jail he had people watching her

house so she fled to Thailand. This is the difficulty - the aunt is gone and the

other girls all dispersed after temporarily going to a safehouse in Battambang. Meanwhile

Bunrith and his backers are still in business."

Soldiers slay nine fishermen

On April 2, 1998 a group of fishermen in Stung District, Kompong Thom were stopped

by soldiers from Battalion 15, armed with machine guns and rocket launchers. The

soldiers accused them of being cow thieves, then marched the men off to a secluded

clearing , where they searched their bags, tied up the men and beat them.

"They beat one man more severely, hitting him with their rifle butt, because

they thought he was the leader," said the one survivor of the attack.

"They kicked me two times as I was lying on the ground. I felt dizzy but could

hear them beating the others."

The soldiers began to discuss what to do with the men: "One wanted to take us

to Chor Mous Mountain. Another said there was no need to take us so far: they could

kill us there and let the fish feed on our bodies."

When one member of the group attempted to run off, a soldier shot him in the back.

Soldiers kicked another man, making him stumble and fall over, and then shot him

in the head. "Then they shot my cousin and after that they killed Pho Man,"

the survivor said. "Everyone was crying and screaming." After another member

of the group attempted to run off, some of the soldiers ran after him, shooting him


In the chaos, the one survivor was able to escape, making it back to his home past

midnight. He identified the perpetrators to police and court officials; subsequent

police reports and interviews with district military and local officials confirmed

that the perpetrators were members of the provincial military. More than a year later,

however, none of the perpetrators has been arrested.

A Kompong Thom provincial police report concluded that members of Navy Battalion

15 had killed the nine people after going on a mission in that area to search for

a band of robbers.

About two weeks after the incident, a local police chief based near the incident

site called the one survivor to the police post in order to interview him about the


"By chance, when I got there, one of the perpetrators was sitting in the police

post," said the survivor. "They hadn't arrested him - he just happened

to be there, chatting. I'd shaved my head [as part of funeral ceremonies] and quickly

covered my face with my scarf. I was so afraid that I was shaking and couldn't control

my feelings." He quickly departed, learning later that the man he saw was a

friend of the local police chief.

In April the prosecutor prepared a complaint charging "unknown persons"

with intentional murder. In June he sent the investigating judge the dossier, which

included police reports identifying the perpetrators as well as their military unit.

However, since June 1998 when the dossier reached the investigating judge, there

has been virtually no activity on the case, despite complaints filed by the victims'

families as well as human rights groups.

While the investigating judge admitted that the massacre was one of the worst crimes

committed in Kompong Thom in her memory, she has not actively investigated it.

"I worry about my safety because the case is connected to the police, local

authorities, and military," she said. "The police and commune chief are

okay, but the military might be difficult."

The investigating judge has not interviewed any witnesses other than the one survivor.

She has never been to the incident site to interview other witnesses and admitted,

"If we go there so long after the incident happened, there are not so many people

around who know about it."

She said she has repeatedly invited local authorities, military and police from Stung

District to travel to the provincial court to be interviewed but that they had ignored

her summons.

Meanwhile, the survivor and the wives of the victims do not understand what is holding

up the case. "I went many times to the court," said one of the widows.

"All they do is show me the log book to show that the case is not yet resolved."

Cradling a small child in her lap, another widow added: "No financial compensation

would be enough for me - not even ten million riel. My husband was a good man. I

miss him every day. He never stole anything. The perpetrators should be punished

for the crime they committed."

Militia leader massacres family

On the evening of October 1, 1997, a group of people gathered for a family party

celebrating Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Ancestors, in the front yard of popular

Funcinpec activist Sao Sim in Kirivong District, Takeo.

Around 8:00 p.m., Leang Teng, a member of the commune militia, passed by the party

and complained about the noise. Earlier he and some of his friends had been seen

hiding in the bushes around the house, observing the gathering.

Sao Sim and his wife invited Leang Teng to join the party, but he declined, cursing

the group as he left by saying, "You drinkers are dogs."

A few minutes later Leang Teng returned with an AK-47 and opened fire on the guests,

systematically aiming at and shooting five of them, one after the other. Sao Sim

and two of his nephews were killed instantly. Another nephew named Ben Thy and Sao

Sim's son were seriously injured.

Neighbors and relatives carried the two surviving victims into a nearby house. While

they were caring for the victims, an accomplice of Leang Teng threw a grenade into

that house, but it did not explode. The two injured people were then carried out

of the house in order to take them to hospital. Leang Teng threw a second grenade

into the group, killing Sao Sim's injured son and injuring an additional five people.

After the grenade explosion, one of the wounded, Ben Thy, was still alive. He lay

on the ground screaming for help. The family was too frightened to assist him, terrified

that another grenade would be thrown. Ben Thy was left bleeding on the road, alone

and unattended, until he died about two hours later.

The commune authorities were immediately notified but did nothing to intervene. One

of Sao Sim's sons who survived the attack said that about half an hour after Ben

Thy died the police arrived on the scene. "They looked at the dead bodies and

left," he said. "The pigs rooted around the dead bodies and ate the intestines.

We could only watch - we hid because we were afraid the shooting would continue.

Their lives were not important; they died like animals."

Although witnesses provided the names of the perpetrators to the commune authorities

and the police, Leang Teng spent the two days after the massacre in his house in

the village. No effort was made to arrest him during that time. After several days,

Leang Teng left the village, reportedly moving to a nearby military base for protection.

The provincial prosecutor received the case on November 21, 1997 and forwarded it

to the investigating judge on December 2. The next day the court issued a warrant

for the arrest of Leang Teng and one of his accomplices on charges of intentional

killing. Court officials said that the gendarmerie were unable - or unwilling - to

carry out the arrest warrant so the court re-issued it the same day to the provincial


A year and a half after the massacre, no arrest has been made, despite the fact that

the identity of at least two of the perpetrators is known. For Sao Sim's family,

however, memories of the massacre are still fresh.

"To say I feel sorry about what happened to us is meaningless," said Sao

Sim's son. "There's no word to describe how sad I feel. I think about this every

day, all the time. I want justice, but we must keep quiet. We've lost five family

members already. We must keep quiet so that the rest of my family stays alive."




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