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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rights groups face prosecution

Rights groups face prosecution

HUMAN rights groups are facing legal action over their handling of what they suspected

were extra-judicial killings by the military in Kratie and Kampong Cham provinces.

On August 30, the Ministry of Defense announced that it will file defamation charges

against the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), an umbrella organization

for 17 human rights groups.

The charges are based on a CHRAC press release from August 15, alleging that at least

six people had been murdered by military officials and that 25 other were missing

and feared dead.

The press release contained strong language, calling the incident "barbarous"

and a "massacre" and saying that "up until now all missing people

are believed to have been killed". It also hinted to a politically motivated

clean-up operation by the Kratie military.

It referred to sources who say that the dead and missing were members of the anti-Government

Khmer Serei guerrilla movement and former Funcinpec soldiers from the 1997 fighting.

However, while there is no doubt that five people are dead - two in Kampong Cham

and three in Kratie - no evidence exists to support the allegations of a political

mass killing. Also, the two dead bodies found in Kampong Cham province do not appear

to be connected with the Kratie killings as CHRAC originally stated.

It has been confirmed a group of about 30 men were taken to the military base in

Snuol, Kratie, in April. Later three of the group's leaders, Nou Sok, Sorn Poa and

Moeuk Sokhoeun were found dead at a location called Kilometer 105. Witnesses said

the men were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs. A fourth leader,

Nuon Vireak, is missing.

The ordinary members of the group were supposed to be Khmer Serei rebels who wanted

to defect to the Government. The leaders had apparently gathered them by promising

them that they would receive land, positions in the military and a $150 monthly salary

if they defected.

It is unclear how many - if any - of these men were Khmer Serei or former Funcinpec

fighters. They were told by their leaders they each had to buy or find a gun before

they could defect, leading to speculation that they were not soldiers or guerrillas

in the first place. More likely they were civilians who were deceived by a profitable


Two of the leaders, Sok and Vireak, have been identified as former soldiers, and

one analyst with knowledge of the case suggests they could have started the recruitment

drive for their own benefit.

"It is possible that Sok and Vireak genuinely wanted to defect, but they needed

more men with them - for security reasons - so they started to recruit people,"

he said.

Whatever the background, the whole group was taken to the Snuol military base. At

one point, Sok, Poa and Sokhoeun were seen leaving the compound with a military officer.

They were not seen again till their bodies were found at Kilometer 105. Vireak disappeared

at that time.

What has happened to the remaining men is uncertain. Police in Kratie say they have

found at least 15 of them alive, but this has not been confirmed.

"They could have gone into hiding. In that case it makes sense that now, a few

months later, they are starting to trickle back out again," said the analyst.

The two men found dead in the Chamkar Leu district of Kampong Cham were alleged robbers

and were most likely not part of the group at the Snuol military base. They had,

however, been taken into military custody in Chamkar Leu shortly before their disappearance.

In an August 31 statement, CHRAC clarified some of its remarks from the August 15

press release: for instance, that Vireak has not been confirmed dead and that the

fates of approximately 26 defectors have not been firmly established.

The CHRAC statement also rejected a Defense Ministry press release of August 29 which

claims no extra-judicial deaths or brutality have taken place in Kratie. The ministry

says the only people killed in Kratie were seven bandits who had terrorized villagers.

According to CHRAC this incident took place in Trapeang Skor village in Kratie district,

not in Snuol.

On August 30, Co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath claimed that the three

people found dead, tied and blindfolded in Snuol district had been killed by bandits.

The CHRAC statement disputed this:

"Senior Kratie law enforcement and military officers are aware of the location

of these bodies and have confirmed to CHRAC investigators that these men appear to

have been extra-judicially executed," the statement said. "CHRAC has received

assurances that an official investigation has been launched into these alleged executions".

CHRAC stated that it was never its intention to defame the Ministry of Defense or

any RCAF forces.

However, a few hours before the statement came out, Defense Ministry spokesman Neang

Phat told the Post that he was drafting a defamation suit.

The charges have raised concerns that the Government will use the Kratie affair as

an excuse for a heavy-handed crackdown on human rights groups.

"As human rights organizations, we must maintain our accountability; if we have

made mistakes we must be held responsible," said Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director

of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, which is a member of CHRAC. "But there

is a danger that this will lead to a larger crackdown. And after Prime Minister Hun

Sen's speech criticizing the organizations there is a real reason to worry."

Hun Sen accused rights workers of protecting bandits and subversives.

Kek Galabru, founder of human rights group Licadho, is concerned about the defamation


"This is the first time I have heard about the Government suing a human rights

organization. But what crime did we commit? All we did was to inform the Government

about what we had learned and ask for a thorough investigation into the case. This

is certainly a warning to us to stop our work," Galabru said.

She said despite the wording of the first CHRAC press release, five people have been

killed and evidence points to perpetrators within the military.

"This is the culture of impunity. Even if the killed men were bandits, we still

have laws that must be followed. They should have been in a court, not in a grave."



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