Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen promoted two members of his elite bodyguard unit despite their convictions for brutally beating a pair of opposition lawmakers near the National Assembly last year.
Sot Vanny and Mao Hoeun became full colonels on Nov. 17, barely two weeks after they were freed from prison after serving only one year of a four-year sentence for beating the lawmakers.
Their promotions from lieutenant colonel on a sub-decree issued by Hun Sen surprised human rights activists and at least one of the victims.
“As a victim I have not received justice,” Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Kong Saphea told RFA. “I have filed an appeal before the court, but the court proceedings are very, frustratingly slow.”
On Oct. 26, 2015 Kong Saphea and another CNRP lawmaker Nhay Chamroeun were dragged from their vehicles and savagely beaten by protesters after the two men attended a morning meeting of the legislature.
The attack occurred as more than 1,000 supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) surrounded the parliament building, calling for CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha to step down as first vice president of the National Assembly.
‘We don’t feel secure in serving our constituents’
The brazen attack took place in broad daylight while video cameras filmed it. The assault was condemned by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Human rights groups characterized it as part of a wider campaign Hun Sen and his allies are waging against the political opposition in Cambodia.
“The Cambodian judicial system is used as a tool to intimidate opposition members and activists,” Kong Saphea told RFA. “Our personal safety and security as the opposition lawmakers are very precarious, after the abusers are promoted. We don’t feel secure in serving our constituents.”
An attorney from the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) human rights organization Hong Kim Suon, told RFA the promotions appear to violate Cambodian law.
“No one shall be appointed or promoted when he is convicted by a criminal court,” he told RFA. “That includes when he is in his suspended terms. There is no exception unless he is granted royal pardon or has served and fulfilled his full term.”
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat defended the promotions, telling local media they had served their time.
“They had already served their punishment in compliance with the law,” he told the Phnom Penh Post. “They have corrected themselves to be good people.”
A double standard
Not only are the promotions illegal, but they encourage others to commit similar offenses, said Am Sam Ath, head of investigations for the human rights group LICADHO.
“Such a practice reflects a double standard and inequality,” he told RFA. “When an abuser is tolerated and promoted it arguably encourages more violence and furthers the culture of impunity.”
That double standard appeared to extend into Cambodia’s notorious Pre Sar Prison as a guard there, who spoke on condition of anonymity earlier this year, told RFA that Hun Sen’s bodyguards displayed significant authority inside the prison.
Sources also told RFA that Mao Hoeun was seen in his home village when he should have been inside Prey Sar, and that the family suddenly was able to afford to move into a new apartment and start a business.
On May 27 Mao Hoeun, Sot Vanny and another member of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit Chay Sarith pled guilty to the assault. They were the only assailants convicted in the attack, even though video footage shows at least two dozen men involved in the assault.
Broken bones and surgery
The lawmakers suffered broken noses, a ruptured eardrum, broken bones and teeth. Nhay Chamraoen required surgery to save his sight in one eye.
The assault carried the hallmarks of a well-planned, well-coordinated attack by well-trained individuals.
In the videos the men are seen dragging the lawmakers from a car before beating them and kicking them while they lay helpless on the ground.
Colorful scarves are tied around the men’s waists, and some of them used walkie-talkies as they made their repeated attacks.
While Mao Hoeun, Chay Sarit and Sot Vanny were clearly capable of beating defenseless lawmakers senseless, there are doubts that they could have carried out a coordinated attack, complete with communications.
Mao Hoeun, Chay Sarit and Sot Vanny have denied they were acting under orders. The men said they were driven to the act when the lawmakers shouted insults at them, calling them puppets of Vietnam, the country that helped install Hun Sen in power three decades earlier.
The lawmakers denied making the insults, and there is no evidence in videos that upholds the guards’ version of events.
Kem Ley investigation wraps up
While questions about the assault on Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun still linger, the government announced that it has concluded its investigation into another high-profile case.
On December 23, Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced that Investigating Judge Seng Leang had concluded his investigation into the murder in July of popular government analyst Kem Ley.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Ly Sophanna stated on the messaging app Telegram that he investigation was concluded and that all parties including Kem Ley’s wife Bou Rachana had been notified.
Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Though authorities charged a former soldier, identified as Oueth Ang, with the killing, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the former soldier over a debt. The accused killer has used the nom de plume Chuop Samlap which roughly translated means “meet to kill.”
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.
Reported by Neang Ieng and Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.