UNLESS the powers-that-be get in the way, a defenders group will take the rare step
of prosecuting Cambodian law enforcers allegedly implicated in the 1996 death of
a rice farmer in Kompong Cham.
Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) is taking on a criminal case in which eight Kroch
Chhmar district policemen stand accused of taking part in the illegal arrest, detention,
torture and manslaughter of citizen Liv Peng Arn.
Arn, 42, died Jan 13, 1996 while in their custody. Police claim he committed suicide
in a cell.
"We believe it's a very clear case of police brutality," said Juan Pablo
Ordonez, a legal advisor with CDP. "We hope to send them the message that if
you keep abusing civil society, you will be punished for it."
Arn's widow, Chheng Kim Srean, has pressed charges against the eight and appealed
a recent judgment handed-down on one of his interrogators, police inspector Rong
Vu, who is back at work.
On Feb 24, at Kompong Cham town courthouse, Vu was given a two-year suspended sentence
and put on five-years probation for the illegal arrest and detention of Arn.
No charges of torture or manslaughter were filed by the state prosecutor who maintains
that, with no witnesses, there isn't enough evidence.
But Srean, who kept vigil outside the Kroch Chhmar police precinct in the slow hours
before her husband's death, insists she heard her husband screaming for mercy at
the hands of his interrogators.
"I could hear them beating him," she recalled. "I recognized my husband's
voice crying out: 'please, don't torture me'."
She points out that when she rushed into Arn's cell after she was told he committed
suicide by hanging himself, she found him there, his head swollen, bruised, and bleeding,
his legs still shackled to the floor.
There is also physical evidence taken from an Aug 27 inspection of Arn's exhumed
body by local authorities who were pressed by human rights agencies to act. The exhumation
revealed six broken ribs.
Srean says she is not satisfied with Vu's punishment for a misdemeanor and the 2
million riel ($727) compensation awarded to her by the court. On Mar 27, in Kompong
Cham, meeting with CDP lawyers and provincial justice officials, she made the decision
to seek posthumous justice for her husband.
To this end, CDP is planning a two-fold strategy: they will appeal the Rong Vu sentence
in Phnom Penh; and, since charges of torture and manslaughter were never filed against
Vu and the others, they will press ahead with those charges in Kompong Cham to determine
the degree to which each was involved in Arn's alleged illegal arrest, detention,
torture, and death.
"We will ask the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh to increase Vu's punishment, put
the person back in jail, and increase the compensation awarded to the plaintiff,"
CDP will build their case on forensic and testimonial evidence gathered by human
rights NGO Licadho and the UN Center for Human Rights.
According to CDP, the case hangs on proving that Arn was beaten in order to confess
to the April 1995 murder of a relative of provincial governor Hun Neng, who is the
Second Prime Minister's elder brother.
The CDP case is connected to another case currently being appealed by a separate
defenders group, Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC).
CDP will argue that Arn was picked-up by police at a local rice-mill on Jan 11, 1996,
the morning after Sun Lai Huort, 24, was forced under police custody to confess to
having conspired with Arn in the slaying of Ms. Tun Sok Heng, 37. According to sources,
she was married to Hun Neng's cousin.
CDP alleges that when Arn was arrested police also tried to forcibly extract a confession
from him, but went too far.
LAC's appeal for Huort - condemned Aug 10 to 15 years in prison along with a medical
student who allegedly contracted the hit on Heng - has been stalled, according to
LAC sources, partly because the Kompong Cham governor has leaned on the case.
"Sok Heng's husband asked the court to postpone any decisions," a LAC defender
According to another LAC source, during the August trial in Kompong Cham, Hun Neng's
bodyguards made their presence felt at the courthouse.
So Nath, the province's Third Deputy Governor, confirmed that the slain Heng was
related to his boss, but denied that the governor's office was harassing court proceedings
in both the LAC and CDP cases.
"The governor has ordered the court to verify all reports they received about
these cases in order for [both] trials to proceed in a just way," Nath said.
"But the governor's office cannot put any pressure on the judge."
To CDP's Ordonez, the case marks a "huge policy change".
"We are now representing not only the poor, but also other powerless and disenfranchised
people who have to confront those in power."
Ordonez expects there will be stiff resistance to CDP's move. He believes justice
officials will try to blur Liv Peng Arn's alleged responsibility in the cold-blooded
death of Tun Sok Heng with Arn's allegedly being denied a fair trial.
According to Ordonez, whether Arn did conspire to kill her has no bearing on the
"Even if the guy is the worst murderer, even if he committed the most heinous
crime, it still is absolutely wrong to illegally arrest, detain, torture, and kill
the person," he said. "It could be Pol Pot, or it could be Nixon and Kissinger,
but still they have the right to a fair trial."
But, Ordonez conceded, the entire case rides on whether the state prosecutor finally
files charges of illegal arrest, detention, torture, and arrest against the eight
As for the prosecutor in question, Ouk Touch didn't seem convinced that CDP and their
client, Arn's widow, have much of a case.
"At the moment, we don't have sufficient evidence," Touch said. ""We
have questioned the four men who interrogated Arn, but none of them saw him being
The prosecutor conceded that Arn's broken ribs constitute strong evidence that he
He suggested that the possibility the dead man's relatives dug-up the corpse and
broke some bones, to alter the evidence before the August exhumation, should not