Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NGOs locked out of Battambang investigation

NGOs locked out of Battambang investigation

NGOs locked out of Battambang investigation

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The Ministry of Interior (MoI) investigation is complete and the cameraman who shot

the grisly footage of it has been found. But there have been no sackings, suspensions

or transfers of prison officials in the aftermath of the brutal Battambang prison

siege on June 18 last year that led to the deaths of nine prisoners and one guard.

A frame from the video footage filmed by Bayon TV and Kampuchea Thmei correspondent Meach Nara of the siege of Battambang Prison on June 18, 2006, shows the corpses of slain prisoners. The video casts doubt on the government's version that the prisoners committed suicide with a hand grenade.

"I found that it was a result of weakness from the prison management,"

said Sak Setha, director-general of the administration department at the Ministry

of Interior and head of the MoI's investigation. "Controlling thousands of inmates

is very complicated. It's like a family with many children, it is not easy for the

parents to control them."

According to Setha, the MoI cooperated with the prison department, provincial court

prosecutors and provincial police to investigate the case. He said the investigation

confirmed the official statement released days after the incident: the prisoners

committed mass suicide with a hand grenade after realizing that their jailbreak gambit

was doomed to fail.

"It was due to the carelessness of the prison guards," said MoI spokesman

Khieu Sopheak, referring to weapons smuggled inside the prison prior to the revolt.

"I recognize that it is their mistake."

Human rights officers from Adhoc and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)

have told the Post they were barred from investigating the incident - even after

video footage of the affair was leaked to the black market and widely viewed across

the country. The footage, filmed by Bayon TV and Kampuchea Thmei correspondent Meach

Nara and sold bearing the title The real events of the attempted jailbreak, contradicts

the government's explanation.

"The prison director told me that higher-ranking officials will not allow human

rights organizations to investigate the case," said In Kong Chit, CCHR's Battambang

investigator. "We proposed to the court to arrest the killers for punishment

like other perpetrators. But it is complicated and slow for us because [this case]

is related to high-ranking officials and [because] the shooters of the prisoners

are the special forces of the MoI."

Yin Mengly, Battambang monitor for rights NGO Adhoc, said the government's investigation

was insufficient and information has been hidden.

"If authorities are willing to investigate the case, they should allow human

rights organizations to join them and find the facts," Mengly said.

Kong Chit said on January 10 that he believes National Police Commissioner General

Hok Lundy is responsible for the incident because he was present at the scene.

Lundy, a member of the CPP standing committee, arrived by helicopter hours after

the siege began. According to the CCHR report, he was accompanied by Kauy Bun Sorn,

chief of the prison department at the MoI, and high ranking police officials Samkol

Sakhorn and Setha. Also on the flight were 20 soldiers from the MoI's Special Forces

armed with tear gas and specialized weapons, the CCHR reported.

The report continues: "By this stage [arrival of Lundy], the eight prisoners

were huddled together with the hostage next to a motorbike outside one of the cells.

At 2:20 pm shots were fired and smoke grenades were thrown at the prisoners, with

the police claiming that the prisoners shot first. As the police fired at the prisoners,

the prisoners' grenade, held by Sim Yut, exploded. All eight prisoners and the hostage

died. The police found a .49 caliber pistol and three bullets."

At this point accounts of the sequence of events and death toll vary. Adhoc's Mengly,

who was present at the time, said gunfire preceded the explosion of the grenade.

He observed wounded prisoners, but said the authorities did not allow NGOs to enter

the compound to assist them.

"The authorities intended to let the victims die after the explosion,"

Mengly said.

But Battambang Prison director Kang Saren said that four prisoners who were injured

were taken to the hospital and remained there until they were well enough to return

to incarceration. Saren also defended the controversial decision to bury the dead

prisoners inside prison grounds the same day without autopsies or Buddhist ceremonies.

After the siege, Lundy defended the use of lethal force as the only option for preventing

the escape of other prisoners.

"Those people are criminals with a pistol and grenade," Lundy said to local

media in June. "The problem was resolved technically."

Nara, who filmed the video, said he filed the tape to the [Bayon TV] head office

in Phnom Penh as he would normally do, and does not know how it was copied and distributed.

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