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Surviving the terror of Tbaung Kmum

Surviving the terror of Tbaung Kmum

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HENG SARON

KAMPONG CHAM - When former police officer Hang Saron was arrested by his old colleagues

on June 25 he had good reason to fear for his life.

His home district of Tbaung Khmum has a gruesome history of political violence -

human rights workers say it's the worst in the country - and Saron, a Funcinpec

supporter, thought he was going to be the district's next victim.

But Saron, 41, still in the custody of Kampong Cham provincial police, was one of

the lucky ones. He said he was threatened with torture and forced to falsely confess

that he was trying to disrupt the election campaign - but he wasn't killed.

"They said they would kill me and they told me to escape from the car [but]

I was not stupid enough to run," said Saron, who was arrested without a warrant

by police on June 25, one day after attending a massive Funcinpec rally led by Prince

Norodom Ranariddh.

"They forced me to say that another man and I were trying to disrupt the electoral

process. I told them what they wanted me to say, to save my life," Saron told

the Post.

"I said I was working for the Funcinpec office chief. I gave them my thumbprint

[signature] to save my life."

Human rights investigators said Saron was targeted because he is in charge of security

at a Funcinpec party office whose signboard had been shot just days before.

When rights investigators first inquired about Saron's arrest, police denied he was

in custody. The rights workers said they feared the worst, because police in Tbaung

Khmum are notorious for abuse and the district's legacy, especially during elections,

has been well documented.

In the most recent case, the tortured body of Sam Rainsy Party activist Em Eam, 62,

was discovered in a shallow grave in the district's rubber plantation on June 17,

seven days after he went missing. Party officials say his neck and nose were broken.

"This is a perfect example of a political case," a rights worker said.

Justice police chief Seng Sok Kim said the police investigation is "30% complete

[but] we cannot say if it is political until we finish the investigation and arrest

the murderer".

Human rights investigators found that Em Eam and others had been threatened by the

chiefs of both the commune police and the local village before the killing.

"Since the killing, more than one other member of the same village has again

been threatened," a rights investigator said, noting that several had fled.

Em Eam's wife told the Post at a June 21 Sam Rainsy Party rally in Phnom Penh that

she was too afraid to return home.

Surrounded by fertile fields and beautiful rubber trees, just across the water from

the provincial capital, Tbaung Khmum has a long history of murders, vendetta hits

and politically motivated executions.

It is "the worst district" in a province famous for human rights violations,

according to one rights investigator who complained he had recently been harassed

by local authorities.

Another rights investigator said a man came into his Tbaung Khmum guest house room

last year with an AK-47 in hand, pointed it at his chest and searched the room.

The grim human rights climate of the area has long been on record. US academic Judy

Ledgerwood highlighted the district in an essay on patterns of CPP political repression

and violence during the 1993 UNTAC period.

The essay opens with the discovery of the decomposing and tortured body of businessman

and district accountant Hou Leang Ban, whose only crimes appear to have been that

he thought "too much" and that he was a Funcinpec supporter.

"In the week that Hou Leang Ban was missing, his wife had gone out on three

other occasions to view bodies of persons found murdered in the rubber plantation

in Tbaung Khmum district. None of those bodies had been her husband's, but none was

ever identified, nor were the deaths ever explained," Ledgerwood wrote.

"Hou Leang Ban's death was part of a pattern," she wrote, citing extensive

interviews with opposition parties and State of Cambodia government documents detailing

plans to discredit the political opposition.

Such patterns were no secret to Hang Saron, who walked out of his job as a policeman

on the CPP-dominated force following the fighting last July in which Prince Ranariddh

was deposed.

Recounting his June 25 arrest, Saron said he was pursued by two soldiers who tried

to run him off the road before cornering him with their guns drawn. They took him

into the forest and searched him, finding a grenade and a handful of bullet shells.

He was taken to a military base where authorities cuffed his legs and brought in

torture instruments.

"They said: 'I will beat you without leaving any marks so it will be useless

for you to complain to human rights workers'," Saron recounted.

Rights workers, meanwhile, were urgently pressuring provincial police to acknowledge

Saron was being held. After a flurry of calls, visits and a meeting with top provincial

police officials, police finally admitted they had arrested Saron.

However they insisted the case was "criminal" because Saron was found in

possession of a weapon without a permit.

"Hang Saron was transferred to me... because he had a grenade and bullet shells,"

said deputy police commissioner Hen Yok Lim.

Saron said he was carrying the grenade because on June 21 unknown soldiers opened

fire on a sign over the Funcinpec office, which he guards.

Police said Saron would also be tried immediately - just as in the case last month

of Sam Rainsy Party member Lim Pheng who was arrested, tried and sentenced to one

year in prison for possession of a gun. Pheng later said he had been tricked into

standing trial without a lawyer.

But although police have since transferred Saron's case to the court, at Post press

time, provincial justice police said he had not yet been tried.

Earlier, standing in the provincial police office the visibly shaken father of four

said he was just happy to be out of the hands of Tbaung Khmum authorities.

Saron said quietly: "I didn't think my life could be saved until I was brought

here."

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