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Violent encounter recounted as Wat Phnom victims appear in court

An activist holds up a board of photos yesterday at the Ministry of Interior where Boeung Kak community members were questioned about a complaint logged in 2013.
An activist holds up a board of photos yesterday at the Ministry of Interior where Boeung Kak community members were questioned about a complaint logged in 2013. Heng Chivoan

Violent encounter recounted as Wat Phnom victims appear in court

In the pitch darkness, as riot police massed nearby, Steve Tripp saw a shadowy figure appear from behind a monument at Wat Phnom.

It was late at night on September 22, 2013, and the New Zealand native, at the time a human rights monitor, was observing a peaceful candle-light vigil staged by about a dozen land dispute victims, some of whom yesterday testified at the Interior Ministry about the brutal crackdown that ensued that night.

Tension was high following the disputed election. The group talked and listened to music, as about 30 to 40 men, many wearing masks, arrived in the area and were interacting with the assembled riot police.

In a Skype interview yesterday, Tripp recalled how the anticipation that “something” was going to happen mounted further when power to the surrounding street lights was cut.

Unable to distinguish the man, who was now about 5 metres away, Trip said he began to wander away from the group and towards the unidentified figure.

In his experience, he said, it paid to try and engage with both sides when it came to keeping the peace.

Then it started.

“I got hit with a marble at very high speed and had no idea what it was,” said Tripp, who still has a lump and scar on his chest where the projectile struck.

“Everyone watching thought I’d been shot, because it was the first thing that had happened. I ended flat on my back.”

Activists stand outside the Ministry of Interior yesterday morning as members of their group are questioned about a quiet candlelight vigil that turned violent in September 2013.
Activists stand outside the Ministry of Interior yesterday morning as members of their group are questioned about a quiet candlelight vigil that turned violent in September 2013. Heng Chivoan

Tripp was the first among 11 people, including two elderly women, injured during the next hour as the “thugs” used slingshots, sticks, batons and cattle prods to attack activists, human rights monitors and journalists, while riot police watched on.

About a dozen victims, including the New Zealander, lodged a complaint against four Daun Penh district officials, accusing them of staging the attack.

Yesterday, five of the complainants, all Boeung Kak lake community members, testified about the incident at the Interior Ministry, which this week claimed to have only just now received the case from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court despite it being filed in November 2013.

The group – Sy Heab, Phan Chhunret, Srey Sokkhoeun, Som Soeng, Sar Vesna – were questioned for an hour, while a small group of activists protested outside.

Chhunret, who required five stitches for a head injury sustained in the attack, said officers asked about her injuries, the reasons why the group held the vigil, and whether they recognised their attackers. Heab, also struck in the head, said she asked the officials to deliver justice.

“It has been three years already,” she said.“They said that they would help and urge the court to work on it quickly.”

Prominent Boeung Kak activitist Tep Vanny, whose mother was injured during the crackdown, said she doubted anything would come of the interviews.

“They said . . . they would forward our testimonies to the court,” Vanny said.“It seems like they’re throwing the ball back and forth to each other.”

A man holds a marble that he was shot with at Wat Phnom in 2013. Photo supplied
A man holds a marble that he was shot with at Wat Phnom in 2013. Photo supplied

Iv Rith, an official from the Interior Ministry’s criminal department, which is handling the case, said he would call the activists again for questioning as he continued the investigation.

Rith, however, said his work yesterday was made more difficult by the “distraction” of the land dispute protesters outside.Nonetheless, the investigator said he would work to “seek justice for the victims”.

Tripp, however, said he was suspicious of the case’s revival so long after the fact.

“I’ve got no idea what they would be bringing it up for except for an ulterior motive, and in the current context, I would say there’s a high suspicion of that,” Tripp said.

He noted the crackdown’s evident organisation and subsequent reports that the “thugs” escaped to the Daun Penh district compound.

“In this case, they must have been given specific orders,” he said after recalling the brutality of the attack.

“It was a bit like the lions on the antelope,” Tripp recalled. “They went for the weakest.”

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