Updated at 11:40 A.M. EST on 2015-05-07
The relatives of a man arrested following a car accident involving Cambodia’s royalist Funcinpec Party chief Prince Norodom Ranariddh have filed a complaint with a local rights group asking it to intervene on his behalf, saying he was not the driver responsible for the collision.
Norodom Ranariddh was the victim of an accident on April 25 and was among at least six injured when a dump truck traveling in the opposite lane slammed into his motorcade as he returned to the capital Phnom Penh from a rally in Kampong Cham province.
The prince’s wife Ouk Phalla, who was traveling with him in his BMW SUV, sustained a serious head wound in the crash and is being treated at a hospital in the Thai capital Bangkok, while several of his bodyguards, who were traveling in a separate pickup truck, also suffered injuries.
Authorities arrested Chhoeun Sre two days later and have charged him with reckless driving, failure to obey traffic laws, and causing bodily injury, according to a court warrant.
Chhoeurn Ourn, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his nephew had “only been employed by the trucking company for five days” and was “assisting another driver” when his vehicle sideswiped Norodom Ranariddh’s motorcade.
He also noted that Chhoeun Sre had not fled from the scene of the accident.
Chhoeun Sre’s family has lodged a complaint with the Kampong Cham provincial branch of local rights group Adhoc to press authorities for his release, Chhoeurn Ourn said.
Kampong Cham provincial prosecutor Huot Vuthy told RFA he is investigating the suspect.
He said so far only Chhoeun Sre’s family members have stated he was the truck driver’s assistant and not behind the wheel at the time of the accident. If their claim is confirmed, the suspect will be released, he said.
The court has also issued a warrant for the arrest of Chhoeun Run, who is said to have been the truck’s driver during the crash.
“There were two people in the truck,” Huot Vuthy said, adding that “truck assistants usually also drive.”
Adhoc provincial coordinator Tim Narin called the court warrant against Chhoeun Sre “questionable” and said he should not have been arrested because he was “only a witness” to the accident.
She vowed to investigate the case and said she would provide a lawyer for the accused.
Funcinpec spokesman Nheb Bun Chin, who last week expressed doubt that the crash was merely an accident and suggested it may have been a targeted attack, appeared to back away the claim Wednesday.
But he said that while Norodom Ranariddh would “normally forgive” those who had wronged him in other situations, this incident was “serious,” adding that a lawyer had been assigned to the case.
“We will let the legal team work on the case,” he said. “This is a serious case and we need to have a thorough investigation.”
Kampong Cham provincial police chief Ben Rath has dismissed allegations that the accident was politically motivated, according to The Phnom Penh Post.
Norodom Ranariddh returned to politics in early January to lead the royalist Funcinpec party, which he brought to victory in U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993, though he was forced to accept strongman Hun Sen as a co-prime minister.
The day of the accident, the prince had met nearly 3,000 supporters in the Prey Chhor district of Kampong Cham, where he urged people not to vote for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), arguing that its leaders had incited deadly protests following the last election in 2013 as part of a bid to gain more influence in parliament.
The second son of the late King Norodom Sihanouk and a half-brother of the current King Norodom Sihamoni, Norodom Ranariddh was expelled from Funcinpec after being ousted in a coup by Hun Sen in 1997.
While the prince has said he only seeks to reunite Cambodia’s royalist parties and pledged not to interfere with the opposition, his restoration is widely seen as a behind-the-scenes maneuver by Prime Minister Hun Sen to divide the competition facing his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the 2018 elections.
Funcinpec officials have denied that Hun Sen was involved in Norodom Ranariddh’s return.
Political leaders are no strangers to car accidents in Cambodia, where road rules are loosely enforced and party divisions run deep.
In 2002, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha—a former senator for Funcinpec—resigned from the royalist party shortly after a car side-swiped his vehicle, in what he claimed was an assassination attempt.
Earlier that year, opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sokha died in a car accident while driving to Sihanoukville. Sam Rainsy—the current CNRP president—said at the time that he believed foul play was involved.
In other cases, ruling party officials and other members of the elite in Cambodia have enjoyed criminal immunity in situations where their vehicles have caused fatal accidents.
In November 2013, a pregnant woman was killed and her husband severely injured after an SUV carrying senior CPP member Cheap Yeap struck their motorcycle in Kien Svay district south of Phnom Penh, and then fled from the scene of the accident.
The incident prompted U.S.-based Human Rights Watch to call for a probe, saying “political considerations” should not stand in the way of any prosecution.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, noted that the wealthy and powerful in Cambodia have a long history of involvement in hit-and-runs of local people on the country’s highways, fueling public anger.
Reported by Saut Sokprathna for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.