A medical student was charged in court yesterday and detained at Prey Sar prison for a horrific hit-and-run crash that killed three children, seriously injured six people, and left two others slightly injured in central Phnom Penh on Friday afternoon.
Keam Piseth Narita, 23, ploughed her car into a crowd of motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians outside the Ministry of Interior after leading police on a high-speed chase down Norodom Boulevard, where she had earlier hit a motorbike, municipal traffic police chief Pen Khun said.
Two sisters, Rin Rachana, eight, Rin Bopha, 12, and another boy, Srim Bunhong, also eight — each on their way home from school — were killed instantly.
Bunhong’s 17-year-old sister, Sreng Chantho, was among those seriously injured, along with Mao Choryi, 20, Ieng Yon, 38, Poth Sinath, 22, Chem Pich, 40, and Chamroeun Sovan-roeun, 51.
Police reportedly had to usher Piseth Narita and her two brothers, who were passengers in the car, into the Ministry of Interior buildings to shield them from angry witnesses.
Piseth Narita, the daughter of Kandal Hospital deputy chief Keam Piseth, was questioned at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday.
She has been charged with “intentional driving causing death and ser-ious injury”.
Her two brothers had been released without charge, investigating judge Ey Thavarak said.
As news of the accident spread across social media websites over the weekend, it was clear it had touched a raw nerve for many.
A graphic video filmed at the crash site has gone viral, drawing thousands of views in two days. It depicts a chaotic scene with witnesses attempting to revive the bloodied bodies of the three small children who were motionless on the ground, surrounded by a crowd of panicked onlookers.
Online debates on the ethics of road accidents in Cambodia have proliferated.
“If I happen to cause a traffic accident, shall I run away? Because there will be a lot of threats if you don’t.
You might be beaten to death,” one Facebook user said, adding that “hit and run” style accidents in Cambodia were becoming part of the culture.
“How are we going to deal with it?” the user asked.
Hit-and-run crashes account for almost 50 per cent of all road fatalities and almost 30 per cent of traffic accidents in the Kingdom, according to the latest figures from Handicap International. The trend is rising.
Road safety program manager Ear Chariya said hit-and-runs were incredibly common because many drivers feared onlookers would resort to a form of “citizen justice”.
“Drivers who are involved in a crash are afraid that if they stop that people will hit them or kill them. So most drivers try to run away in order to save their own lives.”
Chariya said the fear was not unfounded because in the past many people who had caused serious traffic accidents had been injured or even killed by onlookers.
He said witnesses often turned to mob violence because they had a reasonable distrust that authorities would deliver justice.
“People think that kind of justice won’t occur – that the guilty party won’t be punished, and there are many cases where justice doesn’t occur,” he said.
There have been a number of examples in the Kingdom of powerful people or their relatives going without punishment after causing serious traffic accidents.
Chariya said the government needed to improve law enforcement for guilty drivers.
Currently, the maximum penalty for a fatal hit-and-run is up to three years in jail and a fine of between two and six million riel ($1,500).
Handicap International has also recommended that the government start an awareness campaign, educating people that they cannot take the law into their own hands after witnessing traffic accidents.
Meanwhile, about 50 family members and friends of the victims dressed in white gathered in a vigil at the crash site yesterday afternoon, hands clasped in grim prayer, as they surrounded school portraits of the three children.
In a ritual to expel bad omens, more than 100 monks in saffron robes walked the length of the crime scene from Independence Monument to Kbal Thnol flyover.
Amidst the busy weekend traffic, they streamed in single file down the middle of Norodom Boulevard, chanting and showering tearful mourners in holy water and lotus flowers.
Leak Sokunthearith, 35, who lost her two daughters, said that the parents of the suspect had joined her children’s funeral.
“They have come to ask forgiveness for their child and asked me to take the money in exchange for the complaint against their child,” she said, adding that they had offered her $500 but she had asked for $20,000 in compensation for each of her daughters.
Her husband Rin Rithy, 45, said that he would lodge a formal complaint against the suspect to ensure that justice was delivered.
The mother of the eight-year-old boy Bunhong, Chhun Chantha, 43, said she could never forgive the suspect, although her parents had asked her to.
“I can understand the feeling of the suspect’s parents who have come to my son’s funeral and asked for forgiveness, but I won’t sell my child’s life. I want to see this driver in jail, more than I want compensation,” she said.
“I have sacrificed everything losing my boy. I have three children, but he was my only son and now he is gone.”