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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Willing executioners: rough justice in the commune

Willing executioners: rough justice in the commune

kill5.jpg
kill5.jpg

Man to the slaughter: a suspected thief is led out of the Toul Svay Prey Commune police station by two policemen, including a grinning Seng Vannak (right). Vannak proceeded to unlock the suspects handcuffs and release him to a waiting mob who beat him to death.

C

ham Sitha, Chief of Police of Phnom Penh's Toul Svay Prey Commune, is understandably

reticent to discuss how officers under his command recently orchestrated a daylight

street killing of a criminal suspect in their custody.

Sitha would much rather reminisce about the French government-sponsored police training

program in which he participated in 1994 than the afternoon of Dec 28 when Seng Vannak,

head of his precinct's Criminal Investigation Division, lead a suspect from the station,

unlocked his handcuffs and set him loose on a waiting crowd of approximately 200

men armed with clubs and stones.

Minutes later the man's bloodied corpse lay by the roadside, just another victim

of Cambodia's near-daily vigilante killings, a phenomenon to which government officials

turn a blind eye or, as in the case of officer Vannak, are enthusiastic participants.

Although Vannak himself was unavailable for comment, Sitha remembers the day well.

"We don't know [the suspect's] name, nothing was recorded," he said of

the December 28 killing. "After he died he was taken away for cremation and

the case was closed."

Sitha and the people of Toul Svay Prey are no strangers to acts of vicious extrajudicial

violence.

Just around the corner from the December mob killing is the small market where just

three weeks previously Tan Chhar Marina had her face burned off in a nitric acid

attack allegedly committed by the jealous wife of HE Svay Sitha.

But in the four months since taking over as the commune's top cop, Sitha, who boasts

20 years' experience in Cambodian law enforcement, proudly declares that the "crime

ridden" area he took over in October is now "much safer".

According to Sitha, the swift response of men under his command prevented the deaths

of at least three people at the hands of the dead suspect.

"Originally there were two of them, and at 4 am [on December 28] they attempted

to steal a moto-dop's motorcycle nearby. They forced the moto-dop onto his knees

and fired two shots at him, but he was protected by a Buddhist amulet he was wearing."

The gunshots alerted men from Sitha's precinct, whose sudden arrival forced the two

suspects to flee on foot. Under hot pursuit by both police and a growing crowd of

bystanders, the fleeing suspects encountered two American Mormon missionaries approaching

on bicycles.

"They forced the missionaries to dismount and then rode away on their bicycles,"

Sitha said.

Moments later the suspects found themselves surrounded. One of the suspects slipped

past the crowd on foot, while the other man was apprehended and taken to the commune

police station.

It's at this point that Sitha's account of events diverges dramatically from that

of eyewitnesses and photographic evidence.

"He was killed some distance from [the police station]. ... There were around

900 people in the crowd and police on the scene couldn't control them," he explained.

In fact, a series of photographs documenting the killing show the suspect being led

out of the police station in handcuffs, his chest already covered in blood, to the

waiting crowd which proceeds to beat him to death directly in front of the police

station and commune office.

Sitha denied the photo evidence of the sequence of events leading to the suspect's

killing seconds from his office. "It didn't happen like that," he insisted.

Instead Sitha spoke of how vigilante killings are "understandable" in light

of widespread public dissatisfaction with the legal system.

"People know that after the police arrest people, the courts just let them go

free," he said. "People take matters into their own hands because they

want to protect themselves ... but I don't know why they seem to enjoy doing that."

However, Sitha stopped short of outright condoning vigilante killings.

"It's bad when people in this area kill thieves," he told the Post. "When

that happens I have to pay the 112,000 riels for the cremation.

"It was not good that that man got killed, but it could have been worse,"

Sitha said as he proudly dusted the glass frames of his police training diploma hanging

on the wall. "If either of those two [Mormon] missionaries had gotten killed,

I'd have lost my job."

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