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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Journalist's death left unresolved

Journalist's death left unresolved

K OMPONG CHAM - There was no murder weapon and little in the way of corroborated

evidence or debate about possible motive.

When army colonel Sat Soeun was

freed from the charge of murdering Koh Santepheap journalist Chan Dara for lack

of evidence, few were surprised, yet many were left worried and


Interior Minister You Hockry says "there is no doubt" Soeun

is guilty. The second-in-command of the Cambodian National Police, Nuon Soeur,

says the court was bribed.

Two fresh charges against Soeun - including

another of murder - are compromised because he was not kept behind bars, say

human rights groups. "Witnesses would have testified against Soeun while he

remained in prison. Now they will be too scared," said one rights


What the Kompong Cham court did not hear was the story of a

journalist afraid for his life; who warned his wife and employer of high-level

anger against him; and who - days before his death - quit his job in preparation

to flee a town he felt was getting too dangerous for him.

Dara was blamed

for providing gossip to another newspaper, Preap Norn Sar, alleging that

Governor Hun Neng (second Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother), Forestry Department

chief Pal Ren and military police commander Mann Saran were involved in illegal

timber and rubber trading. Sat Soeun's name was not mentioned, but he is known

to have headed a 30-man armed protection unit of illegal log and rubber convoys.

Locals say that when a convoy was escorted by Soeun, it was never attacked.

The articles angered the highest reaches of Kompong Cham politics. The

Post has learned that an investigation into whether the articles were the

possible motive behind Dara's murder was blocked by unnamed people.


figure close to the trial said: "This (motive for Dara's murder) was

investigated but other parties hampered the process." The source refused to


The Preap Norm Sar articles, beginning Nov 17, allege that Pal

Ren was extorting money from illegal timber factories, with the "strong support"

of Hun Neng. The articles, which continued throughout early December, used

strident headlines, such as "Governor Hun Neng is smelling bad", "Mr Hun Neng is

increasing his bad smelling", and "Mr Hun Neng grows algae". Hun Sen is

mentioned on numerous occassions as protecting his brother.

Mann Saran

and his men were escorts for rubber convoys, according to one article; "... not

just civil servants know the bad stories of (Saran), cigarette sellers along the

river also know the story. But nobody dares to do anything to stop him. The news

asks whether the Government knows this story or not, because these bad acts are

known throughout Kompong Cham."

On Dec 8 - the day of Dara's murder - the

paper wrote that "Mr Hun Neng is looking for reporters who work for Preap Norm

Sar in Kompong Cham." At this stage, Dara had already told Koh Santepheap he was

resigning, according to his widow, Son Sarun.

Father of two Dara, 28, was

shot twice in the back on a dark road. Soeun admitted being near the scene,

having drunk 16 bottles of beer with Dara at a restaurant shortly before the

shooting. Soeun reported the murder, claiming - with three witnesses - that

another motorbike left the murder scene, maybe driven by a man in shorts. This

was the mysterious "third person" that was argued during the trial. Dara was not

robbed and seems to have voluntarily gone out drinking with Soeun.


have put forward theories that Soeun might not have been the one who pulled the

trigger, but was instead a very believable suspect. Such theories run that the

local population would be pleased to see Soeun behind bars. At the same time,

those who really murdered Dara had a very credible "patsy", whose imprisonment

would take the heat off further scrutiny into the journalist's death, and their

own illegal activities.

Soeun - whose real name is Chan Cheng, nicknamed

Soeun Pandey or "Soeun of the Earth" - has a fearsome reputation that has

reached far beyond Kompong Cham province. After his court-ordered release, two

Khmer journalists took a late afternoon taxi back to Phnom Penh "rather than

stay in this town".

The Post has learned that in January 1993 Soeun was

blamed for murdering a Khmer Rouge colonel, Kay Kanhchana, who demanded a cut

from Soeun's exports of timber across to Vietnam.

There were witnesses

who saw Soeun drinking in a restaurant with Kanchana, and then leading him away.

Kanchana's weighted body was found in a river 10 days later.

An UNMO team

(No. 506), headed by American Colonel Eugene Thompson, tried to convince a local

chief to arrest Soeun. Around the same time, Thompson's team stopped one of

Soeun's boats carrying 300 logs to Vietnam, and shots were fired.


wildly angered, apparently set out to find the UNMO team. Thompson's team was

ordered out of the Srey Santhor district because it was too dangerous for them

to stay.

It took courage for Son Saron, Dara's widow, to stand beside the

man she is convinced murdered her husband and demand justice at his trial. Later

the next day, fingerprinting her appeal to the verdict, she admitted

understanding little of why Soeun was freed. "I just want money to feed my

children," she said.

Soeun, an RCAF colonel, made the most of his day in

court. Dressed in candy-striped prison pajamas that covered a patchwork of body

tattoos, a packet of 555 cigarettes in his pocket, the round-shouldered Soeun

was fresh-faced, much younger looking than his 38 years, and coldly impassive.

When invited to speak, he barked out his replies confidently and without

hesitation, almost robotically. "I will take an oath (of innocence)," he said on

at least two occasions, "I am a spiritual man and will be dead if I lie. But she

must take an oath beside me," he said of Saron, his accuser, "and she will be

dead as surely as her husband was killed by a gun if she lies."


offer was hardly politic and he was told by his defender Chea Peng, in effect,

to shut up. "He has been a soldier for too long, he doesn't know the

procedures," Chea Peng said. "I suggest he be released based on the evidence.

There is a statute of limitation of 10 years, if someone finds out who killed

[Dara], you can always bring [Soeun] back."

Investigating judge Khieu San

recessed the court for 15 minutes, then returned to read his findings - for

fully 50 minutes, indicating that much, if not all of this report was written

before the trial. Soeun was acquitted, and the Post learned that he was released

from jail within half an hour of leaving the court.

Chea Peng said police

investigating Dara's murder simply made a mistake. They jumped to the conclusion

that Soeun was guilty. "The third person is the most likely scenario," he


Prosecutor Ouk Touch said he was not happy with the decision.

However, there did not seem to be enough evidence to convict Soeun, nor was

there likely to be on the two pending cases, he said. There was no political

interference with the case, he said.

As to motive, he said that was up to

the investigating judge. "I have pushed as much as possible, and done whatever I

could to establish motivation. We have established factual data and based our

explanations (on this data)... despite our suspicions we could not gather

sufficient evidence," he said.

Dara first met Soeun after the latter had

injured another person in a fight, some months ago. Soeun asked Dara to print a

story saying his victim was crazy, and that legitimized Soeun's defence. Dara

wrote the story.

Saron said her husband had told her that the governor

wanted to shut down her newspaper kiosk where she worked. "(My husband) was

afraid and said we should move to Phnom Penh where he would find other work,"

she told the Post. Saron said Dara was not giving Preap Norm Sar information,

though she said he knew about the illegal trade in rubber and timber.


newspaper's final story, dated Dec 15, said one of its reporters assigned to the

Kompong Cham story had to go into hiding from Neng's son, Hun Chanto, who was

"looking for Preap Norm Sar." "[On] the night of Dec 8, Preap Norm Sar called to

inform You Hockry on this matter. You Hockry wanted the names of the people who

were looking for Preah Norm Sar." The paper refused "because talking by

telephone could not guarantee security."



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