Gunfire and the panicked cries of villagers alerted those further up the street to what was unfolding – two robbers had shot a gold seller’s adult nephews and were fleeing in their direction.
A short time later, the robbers lay dead in the street – beaten to death by a dozen villagers.
This was the version of events police gave yesterday in the aftermath of a bungled robbery in Champus I commune in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district on Monday in which 33-year-old Ho Kemhoun and his wife, Hem Sreysras, 28, were shot at as they were followed home from a nearby market.
“Two robbers armed with a gun and four grenades shot at the couple as they opened their front door and entered their house,” an officer, who did not want to be named, said. The gold seller’s two adult nephews who answered the door were injured.
As the robbers fled with jewellery, police said, one was shot in the leg. Word of their escape spread quickly and a mob of angry villagers encircled the two men and beat them to death.
Police would not reveal whether any weapons had been used, nor whether any villagers would be charged.
The violence brought back memories of an incident in 2010 in which two men were beaten to death with sticks, knives, stones and poles after they allegedly stole a motorbike in Kandal province.
It also came as Boeung Kak woman Yorm Bopha serves pre-trial detention in Prey Sar prison over the alleged beating of two motodops – claims her supporters say have no basis.
Seng Socheat, a district police chief in Kandal province’s Saang district, said yesterday villagers had a duty to call police when confronted by criminals.
“It is absolutely illegal to beat robbers to death,” he said. “It must be left up to authorities to punish them through the law.”
A lack of faith in the courts’ ability to deliver justice, however, was a reason people administered their own justice, Adhoc president Thun Saray said yesterday. But incidents of civilians taking the law into their own hands had been in steady decline since about 2006, he added.
“During the 1990s and 2000s, there were many such killings in public places,” he said. “We made a lot of noise. Since then, the government has taken a number of measures to stop this.”
For Phnom Penh motodop Eoun, the anger at seeing a robbery would be enough for him to deliver his own justice.
“If a thief or robber shot or killed someone, I would definitely join in beating him,” he said. “I cannot kill someone, though, because it is illegal.”
Sambath, an NGO worker, felt the same. “I can’t control my anger when someone steals my property. I would have to beat them before sending them to police,” he said.
Sreypov, who runs a money exchange, feared challenging a robber in case they were armed. “But if the villagers catch them, I will hit them to vent my anger,” she said.