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No justice for victims as Cambodia marks anniversary of deadly grenade attack

Members of Cambodia’s Candlelight Party marked the anniversary of a deadly grenade attack on an opposition rally Wednesday with demands for justice in the case that remains unsolved despite a 25-year “investigation” by authorities. Around 200 party officials and family members gathered at a stupa in the capital Phnom Penh where they held a Buddhist ceremony dedicated to the 16 victims of the March 30, 1997, attack on the rally led by Sam Rainsy, the acting president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who now lives in exile to avoid what are widely viewed as politically motivated charges and convictions. In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, former CNRP Sen. Ly Neary, the 79-year-old mother of one of those who died in the attack, expressed her frustration over the failure of authorities to bring her son’s killers to justice. “It’s been 25 years, and authorities have yet to conclude their investigation,” she said. “I don’t have any hope for a resolution.” Nonetheless, Ly Neary urged the government to keep the case open and hold those responsible to account. She said her son, a doctor, had been proud to take part in the rally at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park, where protesters gathered across from the National Assembly to denounce the judiciary’s corruption and lack of independence. While Sam Rainsy is thought to have been the target of the attack, the assailants missed him, killing his bodyguard, as well as some protesters and bystanders. The blasts blew the limbs off nearby street vendors and left more than 150 people injured. According to eyewitness accounts, the people who threw the grenades ran toward Prime Minister Hun Sen’s riot-gear clad bodyguards, who allowed them to escape. An FBI report declassified in 2009 indicated that Cambodian police possessed prior knowledge of the attack and that there was the possibility that the attackers colluded with Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. Despite the toll of death and dismemberment, no one has been arrested for the attack, leaving victims and family members still searching for justice. Sam Rainsy is carried away in state of shock after a grenade attack on a group of demonstrators outside the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh, March 30, 1997. Credit: AFP ‘Investigation’ continues Government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the case remains open and urged family members to submit any new evidence they find to authorities for further investigation. He criticized the Candlelight Party for exploiting Wednesday’s ceremony “to draw attention for political benefit.” “The court continues to accept complaints and information from the public and organizations to find those responsible for the grenade attack,” he said. RFA was unable to reach National Police Spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun for comment on the status of the investigation on Wednesday. Hing Bun Heang, the commander of Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit, denied involvement in the grenade attack in an interview with RFA and dared anyone to present evidence to the contrary. “I already clarified this [with the FBI]. I wasn’t involved. I don’t know anything,” he said. “Show me a photo of me throwing the grenade,” he added, threatening to “use a machine gun against anyone who accuses me.” Hing Bun Heang was sanctioned by the U.S. government in June 2018 over his unit’s alleged role in the grenade attack, as well as several other assaults on unarmed Cambodians. Kata Orn, spokesman for the government’s Cambodia Human Rights Committee, told RFA that officials have been working with the FBI to apprehend the suspects in the case. He also dismissed a French judge’s order last month that Hing Bun Heang and another security aide for Hun Sen named Huy Piseth be tried for organizing the attack. “Cambodia has a constitution to protect Cambodians,” he said, adding that the French court would never be able to enforce its verdict against the two generals outside of its jurisdiction. In an interview with RFA last month, Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said a conviction in the French court could lead to enhanced sanctions against the two individuals and an Interpol Red Notice, or a so-called European arrest warrant, in their names. Cambodians gather at the site of a grenade attack on a group of demonstrators outside the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh, March 31, 1997. Credit: AFP ‘No light’ of accountability Former Sen. Ly Neary said that while she welcomes the French court order, authorities in Cambodia should be responsible for pursuing the case. She questioned why the onus is on the families of the victims to pursue justice for their loved ones. “I am a regular citizen. How can I ‘find evidence?’ Only the authorities have the legal right to do so — regular citizens can’t do it,” she said. Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha called Phay Siphan’s comments “disrespectful” to the victims and their family members. “[The government] can’t find the suspects, so instead they accused us of exploiting the event,” he said. Ny Sokha, president of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that if the government really had any interest in seeking justice for the victims, the French court warrant would be “a good start.” “The government doesn’t have the will to seek justice [for the victim] because it has already been 25 years,” he said. “There is no light [to hold the perpetrators accountable]. This is yet another example of [official] impunity.” Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia’s small but growing opposition party threatens to boycott upcoming elections

Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party, whose popularity has been steadily increasing, is threatening to boycott local elections on June 5 if its activists and members continue to be harassed by officials from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Some political observers believe the Candlelight Party poses the greatest challenge to the CPP in the June commune votes. But Candlelight Vice President Thach Setha said local officials continue to hound candidates from his party without any effort from the Cambodian government to stop the abuse. Thach Setha told RFA on Tuesday that he is considering petitioning the European Union and foreign embassies in Cambodia to intervene to try to stop the government’s intimidation of his party. “If the problem has not been resolved, the party will boycott the election,” he said. The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation Party, was founded in 1995 and merged with other opposition forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012. In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in a move that allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election. Candlelight officials allege they have been falsely accused of using fake names for candidates and putting forward some candidates for election without their permission. At least two Candlelight Party activists have been jailed on allegations of submitting false documents to run in the communal elections. Activists say the harassment often comes at the hand of local police. Candlelight Party activist Sim SoKhoeun told RFA that he was summoned to his local police station in Pursat province on Monday. Once there, police could not produce any complaint against him. “After asking me to wait for an hour, they set me free,” he said, adding that he suspected the move was meant to intimidate him. The Candlelight Party’s boycott threat came as a U.N. human rights official warned that the rights of Cambodians to speak freely and challenge authorities are being eroded by single-party rule. Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, called on all CPP officials to respect basic freedoms of expression and assembly. He spoke via video at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday. “Civic and political space in Cambodia have receded and regressed due to what is effectively all-intrusive single-party rule,” he said. The outlook for human rights and democracy in Cambodia is troubling on many fronts as local, commune elections approach in June, Vitit Muntarbhorn said. Although Cambodia has made progress by drafting laws to protect “vulnerable people” and has reduced a backlog of court cases that had kept people in jail before their trial, Vitit Muntarbhorn said that he had immediate concerns about “closing civic and political space; mass trials and imprisonment of political opposition members; and the upcoming elections.” “I call on all authorities in Cambodia to respect fundamental human rights and international human rights laws to which the country is a party, including the basic freedoms of expression and assembly,” he said. Too much impunity Kata Orn, spokesman for the government’s Cambodia Human Rights Committee, said the government does not abuse human rights and that only politicians abuse the law. “The special rapporteur for Cambodia confused the meaning of human rights abuse and abuse of the law,” he said. Seventeen political parties have registered to put forward candidates in the communal elections, he said. Kang Savang, a monitor with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said although local authorities are supposed to remain neutral, some of them, including police officers, have abused their power and threatened the opposition party. He warned that the integrity of the communal elections would be affected without new measures to prevent political threats against Candlelight Party. Kang Savang urged the Ministry of Interior to investigate the conduct of local authorities. “Impunity will allow perpetrators to not be concerned about their conduct,” he said. Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), said local officials do not have the authority to resolve election-related disputes. Those instead must be handled by Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC). “It is the NEC’s job. If there are disputes, they should file a complaint with the NEC,” he said. RFA couldn’t reach Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak for comment on Tuesday, but Interior Minister Sar Kheng said at a meeting a day earlier that the Candlelight Party was using fake candidate names and then names of others without their consent — a punishable crime. He mentioned a few districts where this had occurred. Thach Setha denied the accusation, saying local authorities had not produced any evidence to support their claims. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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