Cambodian Court Charges Seven, Including Five Chinese Nationals, in Fatal Building Collapse

cambodia-building-collapse-survivor-june-2019.jpg A survivor is placed in an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble of a collapsed building in Sihanoukville, June 24, 2019.

A Cambodian court on Tuesday charged seven people, including five Chinese nationals, with involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy in connection with the collapse of an under-construction building in Cambodia’s coastal town of Sihanoukville over the weekend that left 28 dead and 26 injured.

Authorities wrapped up rescue efforts on Monday after discovering two more victims alive, buried under material from the collapse Saturday  of the unlicensed seven-story building, which held an estimated 70 people—many of whom were construction workers sleeping on the second floor at the time of the incident.

Observers have demanded an independent probe into the Chinese investors who operated the site, and on Tuesday, Investigating Judge Sok Heng from the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court charged Chinese national Chen Kun—the building owner—with involuntary manslaughter, as well as causing bodily harm and damages, according to court documents.

Contractor Deng Xin Gui, site manager Xie Ya Ping and engineer Gao Yu were accused as accomplices on all three charges.

Chen, Deng, Xie and Gao are in custody, according to local authorities, while another Chinese national, a Vietnamese and a Cambodian—all three of whom were charged with conspiracy—are being sought by police.

The seven men face jail terms of between three and 10 years if convicted.

Sihanoukville spokesman Kheang Phyrum told RFA’s Khmer Service that an inter-ministerial committee has been established to investigate the incident and that “the results of the investigation are still pending.”

According to reports, developers did not have a permit to proceed with construction on the building, but continued with work despite visits on two separate occasions by officials who ordered the project halted.

The charges came after Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Yun Min resigned in a post to his Facebook page on Monday, expressing “deep regret” and “apologies” to the families of victims, and Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the removal of Nhim Vannda from his post as senior minister and first vice-chairman of the Committee for Natural Disaster Management due to his “lack of responsibility and lies.”

‘Light’ charges

Cheap Sotheary, Preah Sihanouk provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the court should have brought more severe charges against the seven men.

“The charges are light compared to the crime they committed,” she said, calling the building collapse “intentional murder” because the developers were aware of the potential impact of failing to comply with construction codes.

Cheap Sotheary also called on the government to prosecute all relevant officials who allowed construction to continue on the building.

“Government officials must be involved with [allowing the construction to continue without permit],” she said, adding that Yun Min’s resignations would do little to address the pain and anger of the victims’ families.

According to Cheap Sotheary, “70-80 percent” of all Chinese construction in Sihanoukville “uses the same building methods” as those used at the site of the collapsed building, which she said involves steel frames as anchors instead of concrete columns.

While a provincial spokesman declined to comment on the quality of Chinese buildings in Sihanoukville, a worker who survived the collapse told RFA that in the two days he had spent at the site before the incident he saw fragile steel frames and other materials imported from China used to prop up the building, and said laborers at the site were not provided with safety gear.

Chinese investment has flowed into casinos, hotels, and real estate in Preah Sihanouk province and its largest town, Sihanoukville, turning the once sleepy seaside town into a flash point for Cambodians concerned about Chinese economic penetration of their country.

Cambodians complain about unscrupulous business practices, gangland violence, and unbecoming behavior by growing crowds of Chinese investors and tourists drawn to Sihanoukville and a nearby Chinese Special Economic Zone connected to Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative.

Last month Sihanoukville authorities shut down a Chinese-owned casino accused of polluting an adjacent beach following the casino’s defiance of orders to cease operations.

Workplace safety

The announcement of charges against the seven men came as the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) issued a statement expressing condolences to the families and dependents of those killed and injured in Saturday’s building collapse and calling on Cambodia to improve its workplace safety record.

Cambodians suffered 25,206 workplace accidents in 2018, in which 200 workers died and 2,711 were injured, the ILO said, adding that safety risks “can be promptly addressed and prevented,” provided authorities take “coordinated and comprehensive measures.”

“This loss of life is yet another reminder of the risks that thousands of workers face every day and demands urgent action to improve safety and health in the workplace,” the statement said.

The ILO urged Cambodia’s government to bring together a number of national stakeholders to review regulations and enforcement in the construction sector, introduce occupational safety and health standards and building safety standards, ramp up labor inspection and “zero accident” campaigns, and promote preventative safety culture in the sector.

According to the ILO, there are an estimated 200,000 construction workers in Cambodia who are mostly unskilled, reliant on day wages, and are unprotected by union rules.

Call for inspections

Also on Tuesday, several nongovernmental organizations urged Cambodia’s government to conduct building inspections across the country, saying that construction standards are likely to have been compromised by rampant corruption.

Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) executive director San Chey told RFA that the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction must review all permit applications to stamp out graft.

“There is serious abuse of power in the construction sector,” he said, adding that government officials regularly extort money from builders who don’t comply with codes to look the other way and allow them to continue construction.

“[Officials should] prioritize life, instead of benefiting personally in a way that could lead to tragedy,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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