Alongside a makeshift dump of coconut husks and plastic bags, a village in Stung Meanchey commune in the capital’s Meanchey district has struggled to sleep for the past week. They fear the presence of a ghost.
In this village on July 8, 15-year-old Phal Narou was allegedly caught red-handed stealing from his neighbours. His hands were tied behind his back, and he was beaten.
Police yesterday said they are investigating Narou’s untimely death after his body was dredged up from a nearby lake last Monday.
Mob mentality often prevails in Cambodia when suspects – or in some cases innocent bystanders – are believed to have committed a crime. Part of the reason, observers have said, is frustration with the inability or unwillingness of the police and courts to mete out justice, prompting incensed villagers to take matters into their own hands.
What happened to Narou after the mob descended on him is disputed. His mother, Sok Noeun, 36, claims that she heard from no fewer than eight witnesses that Narou was chased into a lake and drowned by the villagers. The villagers, however, say they were going to hand the teenager over to local police when he sprinted away and drowned himself in the water.
It took two days to recover his body. When she saw her lifeless son, Noeun noted his head was split, several of his teeth were broken, and one eye was no longer in its socket. His autopsy simply said that his cause of death was drowning.
“I want to know who tied him up and beat him, what he stole and why they punished him in this way. If my son had a gun or a knife in his hand, I would accept it,” she said, breastfeeding her baby daughter. “I am very, very regretful for losing my son.”
She feared she had not been able to provide for her son, which led him down a tragic path. Narou’s father died in a car accident when he was just 1 year old, and in recent months Noeun sensed her son had fallen in with a bad crowd and might be addicted to drugs.
In the days before his death, he declined to sleep in their tiny one-bedroom home and chose a tree for a bed instead. She began looking for rehabilitation centres for drug-addicted children.
On the day he died, she sliced her finger with a knife while cutting vegetables – a bad omen. “I do not ask for compensation or money, I just want to ask the one who did this ‘why?’, because he was so young.”
Villager Sreng Sreang, 30, said he believes angry locals – who had been plagued by break-ins for months – wanted to beat Narou “a little bit”, but they did not want to kill him.
Sreang says he was not present when Narou was attacked, but he knew police would question him. The contents of his house had been turned upside down, he suspects by Narou, but only one thing was stolen – his wife’s T-shirt. It was the same shirt Narou was wearing when he was found dead.
“We do not know much,” said fellow villager Chhorn Sreymom, 35. “Perhaps the people who lost property took revenge. He just drowned himself because he ran, because he was scared the villagers would beat him if he stayed.”
“We can’t sleep. We are scared of his ghost. The dogs keep barking.”
Meanchey Deputy District Police Chief Hour Mengvang yesterday said he had built a case, which would be sent to court today. “After he was tied up, a crowd of people flocked in to beat him and then he was too freaked out and ran and thought that the water spot was ground because he saw it was full of grass,” Mengvang said, adding villagers he interviewed said they had attempted to save Narou.
“The case was unintentional murder because after they beat the suspect too much, he freaked out and that made him run . . . and he drowned.”
“If we are [talking about an accused person], it is the whole village who flocked to beat him.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap said perpetrators must face the law, and those who took extrajudicial measures could also face court if authorities deemed their action was a crime. “Generally after having arrested a red-handed perpetrator, [they] must hand them over to the competent authority,” he said.
Naly Pilorge, of rights group Licadho, said police have an obligation to investigate the circumstances of Narou’s death “regardless of whether or not he was involved in stealing beforehand”.
“It’s unfortunate and dangerous that so many Cambodians do not trust the police or courts to ensure due process and safety in their communities,” she said.
Like frustrated villagers, Noeun also feels let down by the police. The authorities had treated her like the perpetrator, she said, when she filed a complaint.
She clings to a shoe found near Narou’s body, hopeful it could provide clues to who was responsible for her son’s death.
“The police do not care about us,” she said.
“I do not even have one percent hope that the police will find justice.”