Interview: ‘A French court has indirectly accused Hun Sen of mass murder’

Two security aides of Cambodia's prime minister are indicted for a 1997 grenade attack on a political rally.
Interview: ‘A French court has indirectly accused Hun Sen of mass murder’ Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a press conference in Phnom Penh, Sept. 17, 2021.

On Feb. 2, a French judge ordered two security aides for Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen to be tried for organizing a 1997 grenade attack against a political opposition rally in the capital Phnom Penh that left 16 people dead and at least 120 injured. On Feb. 22, Sovannarith Keo of RFA’s Khmer Service spoke to Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, about the French court’s action and what might happen next. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

RFA: What does this French court’s order of indictment mean for Hun Sen’s bodyguard chief Hing Bun Heang and for Huy Piseth specifically, and what does it mean for Hun Sen himself?

Brad Adams: Well, I think that for the two individuals, Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth, they will never be able to travel in Europe again. They won't be able to travel to North America. There should be a European arrest warrant put out through the European Union's common procedure. There should be an Interpol Red Notice, which means they would be subject to arrest anywhere outside Cambodia. Of course, they should be subject to arrest in Cambodia, but we know the Cambodian government has already refused to arrest them. It could lead to enhanced sanctions against both of them.

Hing Bun Heang has been sanctioned in the past, and I expect that both of them will face additional sanctions that would affect their assets overseas and any companies that they're involved in. And of course we know that in particular Hing Bun Heang is highly corrupt and would be subject in time to sanctions for that as well. So it would be illegal to trade with them or do business with them if you're a foreign company based in certain jurisdictions.

For Hun Sen, the judgment of the court or the court order makes it clear that if he didn't have immunity, he would have also been subject to an arrest warrant. So will Hun Sen be arrested? No, not right now, not unless his immunity is challenged and lifted by a French or other court. But I think it will be very hard for the European Union and other democracies at least to invite him for bilateral meetings or to participate in multilateral meetings, because we now have an independent court in a very well-established democracy concluding that the evidence shows that Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth organized and ordered the grenade attack, and that only one person could have given them permission to do that. And that was the prime minister.

This is something, by the way, that Huy Piseth acknowledged when he was questioned by the FBI in 1997. He said that only a prime minister could order this when agent [Tom] Nicoletti asked him why bodyguards would be present in that park on that day when they had never been present at any other protests before. And he admitted it.

RFA: You mentioned earlier that there will be enhanced sanctions against these two individuals and that there should be an Interpol Red Notice or a so-called European arrest warrant issued against both of them. Do you think the French court will likely move to request this kind of Interpol Red Notice or other international arrest warrant against these two individuals in the future?

Brad Adams: Yes. The way it works in the French system is that it's up to the prosecutor to make that request. But the problem is that there is no transparency, so we will have to dig in, and maybe you as journalists can also dig, to find out if and when the prosecutor makes that request. They do not have an obligation to make that request in public. They can, but they don't have to. So we don't know when that will happen, but I can't believe that it won't happen, because the case is very serious It's a case of attempted assassination, according to the French court, and attempted murder—the attempted assassination of Sam Rainsy and murder of the 16 people. And this is obviously a very, very serious crime.

RFA: Will your organization, Human Rights Watch, move to pursue the request of an Interpol Red Notice against them?

Brad Adams: Yes, of course we are going to push very hard for this. But in the end it is up to the French authorities. I will say the French authorities did pass the demand, the summons for Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth to appear in the French court from the French judge to the Ministry of Justice in France, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, to the embassy in Phnom Penh, and to the Cambodian government. So, the system worked properly in France to pursue this case although the Cambodian government refused to make Huy Piseth and Hing Bun Heang available for questioning. And that's the reason the arrest warrant was issued. The arrest warrant was issued when they failed to appear as requested by the French Court.

RFA: Can this order of indictment be appealed to the Supreme Court in France?

Brad Adams: No, there's no way to appeal at this point. This case is now going to be set for trial sometime next year probably, at which point the evidence will be heard in court. And people like me will be called to testify. Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth will be entitled to appear and testify if they choose to. And the court would come to a conclusion about whether or not there is enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict them.

A Cambodian man prays in front of portraits of victims of a 1997 grenade attack on a political opposition rally in Phnom Penh that left 16 people dead and at least 120 wounded. File Photo: AFP

RFA: If the two are convicted by the French court in upcoming proceedings, as you mentioned, how likely will a sentence be announced against them?

Brad Adams: I can't say that. I would expect in a case with this much death and this many injuries that it would be a very substantial prison sentence. That's what would normally happen, but it's impossible for me to say whether that would happen after a conviction. If there is a conviction, the court will have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that they had organized [the attack] and had planned to kill, and that that's about as serious a charge as one could expect.

RFA: It seems that there will likely be a long way to go for the French court to begin hearing the merits of this case. Do we know of any exact date for this hearing?

Brad Adams: No, there's no date. The estimate I've been given by the lawyers in the case is that usually it would be 12 to 18 months after the order by the investigating judge.

RFA: Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, Pierre-Olivier Sur, told the AFP on Feb. 2 that “French justice is closing in seriously if not dangerously against Prime Minister Hun Sen. If it weren’t for his diplomatic immunity, he would be the one in the dock instead of his subordinates.” How likely is it that Hun Sen could be summoned in the future to testify at the hearing on the merits of this case?

Brad Adams: I expect that will happen the day after Hun Sen leaves office, if he ever does. And, of course, we don't know. Does he really plan to step down and have his son take over, or is he going to stay until he dies? We don't really know. But I imagine that the day after he leaves office this lawyer will be back in court asking for Hun Sen to be summoned, and that his failure to appear would follow the same path as this case. He would then be subject to an arrest warrant. There's no reason why the lawyers wouldn't make that request. There's no reason why the court, given its order, which suggests that Hun Sen was only protected because of his diplomatic status, would not make such a move.

RFA: So this means that if Hun Sen resigns from his position as prime minister and loses his immunity, an arrest warrant could be handed to him. In terms of international legal cooperation, it is likely in the coming month that as the chair of ASEAN, Hun Sen along with other ASEAN state leaders will be invited by the U.S. president to attend the ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit in the White House. Is it likely that the French court would issue a surprise arrest warrant and then send it to the U.S. for help in serving it?

Brad Adams: You know, I wish they would, because I believe he's responsible for this horrific attack. But, no, they've made it clear that they would not. They think his diplomatic status provides immunity while he is in office. So I don't think there's any chance of that happening. However, it should be pointed out that this is the interpretation of the French government. It is not necessarily accurate that he has diplomatic immunity. This could be contested in court someday in France. You know, every country has to decide whether to give diplomatic immunity to a head of government when they travel. And most do, because they're afraid that if they arrest one prime minister, their own prime minister might then get arrested when he travels. But it's not the same as being an accredited diplomat where you have diplomatic immunity. And this is a choice that governments make, to give diplomatic immunity to traveling government officials.

RFA: For my last question, how would this French court’s order of indictment affect Hun Sen’s international image overall, especially when he attends the ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit in the White House?

Brad Adams: Well, we're going to be making the point to journalists such as yourself and the international media that the chair of ASEAN has been indirectly accused of committing mass murder by a French court. Now of course he's been accused of this and many other things by many other people over the years. He's been accused of being responsible for mass killings in the 1998 election and for the killings of journalists and activists, etc. There's no lack of evidence and accusations against Hun Sen. But for a French court to make this order is very different from Human Rights Watch or a Cambodian NGO issuing a report. So I think it's going to elevate the attention he gets. It's going to be a black eye for ASEAN. It's going to make Cambodia look bad, and it's going to lead, I think, to a lot of governments thinking hard about how they should interact with Hun Sen. It can't be business as usual for some governments. You know we don't have much hope for ASEAN or for China or India. I mean, they're going to do business with anybody. But we do hope that other democracies who say they put human rights at the forefront of their foreign policy will reconsider how they interact with Hun Sen.


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