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