HUMAN rights groups are facing legal action over their handling of what they suspected
were extra-judicial killings by the military in Kratie and Kampong Cham provinces.
On August 30, the Ministry of Defense announced that it will file defamation charges
against the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), an umbrella organization
for 17 human rights groups.
The charges are based on a CHRAC press release from August 15, alleging that at least
six people had been murdered by military officials and that 25 other were missing
and feared dead.
The press release contained strong language, calling the incident "barbarous"
and a "massacre" and saying that "up until now all missing people
are believed to have been killed". It also hinted to a politically motivated
clean-up operation by the Kratie military.
It referred to sources who say that the dead and missing were members of the anti-Government
Khmer Serei guerrilla movement and former Funcinpec soldiers from the 1997 fighting.
However, while there is no doubt that five people are dead - two in Kampong Cham
and three in Kratie - no evidence exists to support the allegations of a political
mass killing. Also, the two dead bodies found in Kampong Cham province do not appear
to be connected with the Kratie killings as CHRAC originally stated.
It has been confirmed a group of about 30 men were taken to the military base in
Snuol, Kratie, in April. Later three of the group's leaders, Nou Sok, Sorn Poa and
Moeuk Sokhoeun were found dead at a location called Kilometer 105. Witnesses said
the men were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs. A fourth leader,
Nuon Vireak, is missing.
The ordinary members of the group were supposed to be Khmer Serei rebels who wanted
to defect to the Government. The leaders had apparently gathered them by promising
them that they would receive land, positions in the military and a $150 monthly salary
if they defected.
It is unclear how many - if any - of these men were Khmer Serei or former Funcinpec
fighters. They were told by their leaders they each had to buy or find a gun before
they could defect, leading to speculation that they were not soldiers or guerrillas
in the first place. More likely they were civilians who were deceived by a profitable
Two of the leaders, Sok and Vireak, have been identified as former soldiers, and
one analyst with knowledge of the case suggests they could have started the recruitment
drive for their own benefit.
"It is possible that Sok and Vireak genuinely wanted to defect, but they needed
more men with them - for security reasons - so they started to recruit people,"
Whatever the background, the whole group was taken to the Snuol military base. At
one point, Sok, Poa and Sokhoeun were seen leaving the compound with a military officer.
They were not seen again till their bodies were found at Kilometer 105. Vireak disappeared
at that time.
What has happened to the remaining men is uncertain. Police in Kratie say they have
found at least 15 of them alive, but this has not been confirmed.
"They could have gone into hiding. In that case it makes sense that now, a few
months later, they are starting to trickle back out again," said the analyst.
The two men found dead in the Chamkar Leu district of Kampong Cham were alleged robbers
and were most likely not part of the group at the Snuol military base. They had,
however, been taken into military custody in Chamkar Leu shortly before their disappearance.
In an August 31 statement, CHRAC clarified some of its remarks from the August 15
press release: for instance, that Vireak has not been confirmed dead and that the
fates of approximately 26 defectors have not been firmly established.
The CHRAC statement also rejected a Defense Ministry press release of August 29 which
claims no extra-judicial deaths or brutality have taken place in Kratie. The ministry
says the only people killed in Kratie were seven bandits who had terrorized villagers.
According to CHRAC this incident took place in Trapeang Skor village in Kratie district,
not in Snuol.
On August 30, Co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath claimed that the three
people found dead, tied and blindfolded in Snuol district had been killed by bandits.
The CHRAC statement disputed this:
"Senior Kratie law enforcement and military officers are aware of the location
of these bodies and have confirmed to CHRAC investigators that these men appear to
have been extra-judicially executed," the statement said. "CHRAC has received
assurances that an official investigation has been launched into these alleged executions".
CHRAC stated that it was never its intention to defame the Ministry of Defense or
any RCAF forces.
However, a few hours before the statement came out, Defense Ministry spokesman Neang
Phat told the Post that he was drafting a defamation suit.
The charges have raised concerns that the Government will use the Kratie affair as
an excuse for a heavy-handed crackdown on human rights groups.
"As human rights organizations, we must maintain our accountability; if we have
made mistakes we must be held responsible," said Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director
of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, which is a member of CHRAC. "But there
is a danger that this will lead to a larger crackdown. And after Prime Minister Hun
Sen's speech criticizing the organizations there is a real reason to worry."
Hun Sen accused rights workers of protecting bandits and subversives.
Kek Galabru, founder of human rights group Licadho, is concerned about the defamation
"This is the first time I have heard about the Government suing a human rights
organization. But what crime did we commit? All we did was to inform the Government
about what we had learned and ask for a thorough investigation into the case. This
is certainly a warning to us to stop our work," Galabru said.
She said despite the wording of the first CHRAC press release, five people have been
killed and evidence points to perpetrators within the military.
"This is the culture of impunity. Even if the killed men were bandits, we still
have laws that must be followed. They should have been in a court, not in a grave."