K OMPONG CHAM - There was no murder weapon and little in the way of corroborated
evidence or debate about possible motive.
When army colonel Sat Soeun was
freed from the charge of murdering Koh Santepheap journalist Chan Dara for lack
of evidence, few were surprised, yet many were left worried and
Interior Minister You Hockry says "there is no doubt" Soeun
is guilty. The second-in-command of the Cambodian National Police, Nuon Soeur,
says the court was bribed.
Two fresh charges against Soeun - including
another of murder - are compromised because he was not kept behind bars, say
human rights groups. "Witnesses would have testified against Soeun while he
remained in prison. Now they will be too scared," said one rights
What the Kompong Cham court did not hear was the story of a
journalist afraid for his life; who warned his wife and employer of high-level
anger against him; and who - days before his death - quit his job in preparation
to flee a town he felt was getting too dangerous for him.
Dara was blamed
for providing gossip to another newspaper, Preap Norn Sar, alleging that
Governor Hun Neng (second Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother), Forestry Department
chief Pal Ren and military police commander Mann Saran were involved in illegal
timber and rubber trading. Sat Soeun's name was not mentioned, but he is known
to have headed a 30-man armed protection unit of illegal log and rubber convoys.
Locals say that when a convoy was escorted by Soeun, it was never attacked.
The articles angered the highest reaches of Kompong Cham politics. The
Post has learned that an investigation into whether the articles were the
possible motive behind Dara's murder was blocked by unnamed people.
figure close to the trial said: "This (motive for Dara's murder) was
investigated but other parties hampered the process." The source refused to
The Preap Norm Sar articles, beginning Nov 17, allege that Pal
Ren was extorting money from illegal timber factories, with the "strong support"
of Hun Neng. The articles, which continued throughout early December, used
strident headlines, such as "Governor Hun Neng is smelling bad", "Mr Hun Neng is
increasing his bad smelling", and "Mr Hun Neng grows algae". Hun Sen is
mentioned on numerous occassions as protecting his brother.
and his men were escorts for rubber convoys, according to one article; "... not
just civil servants know the bad stories of (Saran), cigarette sellers along the
river also know the story. But nobody dares to do anything to stop him. The news
asks whether the Government knows this story or not, because these bad acts are
known throughout Kompong Cham."
On Dec 8 - the day of Dara's murder - the
paper wrote that "Mr Hun Neng is looking for reporters who work for Preap Norm
Sar in Kompong Cham." At this stage, Dara had already told Koh Santepheap he was
resigning, according to his widow, Son Sarun.
Father of two Dara, 28, was
shot twice in the back on a dark road. Soeun admitted being near the scene,
having drunk 16 bottles of beer with Dara at a restaurant shortly before the
shooting. Soeun reported the murder, claiming - with three witnesses - that
another motorbike left the murder scene, maybe driven by a man in shorts. This
was the mysterious "third person" that was argued during the trial. Dara was not
robbed and seems to have voluntarily gone out drinking with Soeun.
have put forward theories that Soeun might not have been the one who pulled the
trigger, but was instead a very believable suspect. Such theories run that the
local population would be pleased to see Soeun behind bars. At the same time,
those who really murdered Dara had a very credible "patsy", whose imprisonment
would take the heat off further scrutiny into the journalist's death, and their
own illegal activities.
Soeun - whose real name is Chan Cheng, nicknamed
Soeun Pandey or "Soeun of the Earth" - has a fearsome reputation that has
reached far beyond Kompong Cham province. After his court-ordered release, two
Khmer journalists took a late afternoon taxi back to Phnom Penh "rather than
stay in this town".
The Post has learned that in January 1993 Soeun was
blamed for murdering a Khmer Rouge colonel, Kay Kanhchana, who demanded a cut
from Soeun's exports of timber across to Vietnam.
There were witnesses
who saw Soeun drinking in a restaurant with Kanchana, and then leading him away.
Kanchana's weighted body was found in a river 10 days later.
An UNMO team
(No. 506), headed by American Colonel Eugene Thompson, tried to convince a local
chief to arrest Soeun. Around the same time, Thompson's team stopped one of
Soeun's boats carrying 300 logs to Vietnam, and shots were fired.
wildly angered, apparently set out to find the UNMO team. Thompson's team was
ordered out of the Srey Santhor district because it was too dangerous for them
It took courage for Son Saron, Dara's widow, to stand beside the
man she is convinced murdered her husband and demand justice at his trial. Later
the next day, fingerprinting her appeal to the verdict, she admitted
understanding little of why Soeun was freed. "I just want money to feed my
children," she said.
Soeun, an RCAF colonel, made the most of his day in
court. Dressed in candy-striped prison pajamas that covered a patchwork of body
tattoos, a packet of 555 cigarettes in his pocket, the round-shouldered Soeun
was fresh-faced, much younger looking than his 38 years, and coldly impassive.
When invited to speak, he barked out his replies confidently and without
hesitation, almost robotically. "I will take an oath (of innocence)," he said on
at least two occasions, "I am a spiritual man and will be dead if I lie. But she
must take an oath beside me," he said of Saron, his accuser, "and she will be
dead as surely as her husband was killed by a gun if she lies."
offer was hardly politic and he was told by his defender Chea Peng, in effect,
to shut up. "He has been a soldier for too long, he doesn't know the
procedures," Chea Peng said. "I suggest he be released based on the evidence.
There is a statute of limitation of 10 years, if someone finds out who killed
[Dara], you can always bring [Soeun] back."
Investigating judge Khieu San
recessed the court for 15 minutes, then returned to read his findings - for
fully 50 minutes, indicating that much, if not all of this report was written
before the trial. Soeun was acquitted, and the Post learned that he was released
from jail within half an hour of leaving the court.
Chea Peng said police
investigating Dara's murder simply made a mistake. They jumped to the conclusion
that Soeun was guilty. "The third person is the most likely scenario," he
Prosecutor Ouk Touch said he was not happy with the decision.
However, there did not seem to be enough evidence to convict Soeun, nor was
there likely to be on the two pending cases, he said. There was no political
interference with the case, he said.
As to motive, he said that was up to
the investigating judge. "I have pushed as much as possible, and done whatever I
could to establish motivation. We have established factual data and based our
explanations (on this data)... despite our suspicions we could not gather
sufficient evidence," he said.
Dara first met Soeun after the latter had
injured another person in a fight, some months ago. Soeun asked Dara to print a
story saying his victim was crazy, and that legitimized Soeun's defence. Dara
wrote the story.
Saron said her husband had told her that the governor
wanted to shut down her newspaper kiosk where she worked. "(My husband) was
afraid and said we should move to Phnom Penh where he would find other work,"
she told the Post. Saron said Dara was not giving Preap Norm Sar information,
though she said he knew about the illegal trade in rubber and timber.
newspaper's final story, dated Dec 15, said one of its reporters assigned to the
Kompong Cham story had to go into hiding from Neng's son, Hun Chanto, who was
"looking for Preap Norm Sar." "[On] the night of Dec 8, Preap Norm Sar called to
inform You Hockry on this matter. You Hockry wanted the names of the people who
were looking for Preah Norm Sar." The paper refused "because talking by
telephone could not guarantee security."