An international rights watchdog has urged Cambodian authorities to fully investigate a fatal motor accident involving a prominent ruling party lawmaker, saying “political considerations” should not stand in the way of any prosecution.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called for a “serious” probe into the Nov. 22 accident involving the car of senior Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) member Cheap Yeap and a motorcycle which left a pregnant woman dead and severely injured her husband.
The SUV carrying Cheam Yeap and driven by his bodyguard sped away from the scene after the collision in Kien Svay district south of Phnom Penh, leaving the couple without medical assistance until 30 minutes after the crash, reports have said.
The rider of the motorcycle, Pin Sophea, who was two months pregnant, died hours after the crash due to head injuries.
Her injured husband Moeun Tha, who was sitting behind her, has decided against filing a civil complaint against Cheam Yeap after the lawmaker paid him financial compensation of around U.S. $3,450, including funeral costs and medical fees.
“However, this has no effect on Cheam Yeap’s potential criminal liability,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“Political considerations should not be allowed to obstruct a full investigation and possible prosecution of a senior ruling party politician by Cambodian authorities in connection with a fatal hit-and-run traffic accident,” it said.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said 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.
“The authorities should enforce the law instead of protecting senior CPP politicians,” he said.
“One reason the rule of law has not been established in Cambodia is that wealthy and powerful people often pay or threaten victims to keep quiet and not cooperate with criminal investigations,” Adams said.
Cheam Yeap’s lawyer Kar Savuth said the lawmaker left the scene out of concern for his personal safety, fearing an attack by a mob of bystanders in retaliation for the crash.
“As you know, if you hit and don’t run, you will be attacked by a mob. So his bodyguard knew that and sped up,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service last week.
Kar Savuth said Cheam Yeap had not evaded his responsibility to report the accident because he had contacted him immediately to go to the scene and speak to the police in the lawmaker’s place.
“He called me right after the accident. I went to the scene right away,” he said.
“Those who have said that Cheam Yeap was trying to escape have made a false claim.”
But Human Rights Watch said the lawyer has not publicly provided evidence that Cheam Yeap would have been at risk of being attacked.
'Likely to be protected'
Yeap is “likely to be protected” from prosecution over the crash in Kandal province because of CPP influence over the local police, judiciary, and administration, the group said.
Local police have said they are investigating the case, blaming the accident on the motorcyclist who they said was speeding.
But Moeun Tha said his wife was not speeding when the crash took place.
“Cheam Yeap has helped me so I didn’t file a lawsuit but I am heartbroken to have lost my pregnant wife,” Moeun Tha said.
“I have lost everything. … My wife is already dead so I don’t need to provoke any more problems,” he said.
“If [Prime Minister] Hun Sen wants to tackle road safety and show that he is serious about ending impunity for powerful officials, he will ensure that a serious investigation is conducted into this fatal hit and run,” Adams said.
As a member of parliament, Cheam Yeap is immune from criminal prosecution.
However, immunity can be stripped from lawmakers by a parliamentary vote—a measure that has so far never been taken against a ruling party member.
Human Rights Watch believes Cheam Yeap could be liable for up to three years in prison under the country’s traffic law.
“Although he was not the driver, he left the scene of an accident while failing to urgently transport an injured person who later died to the hospital,” it said.
Reported by Yeang Socheameta and Sonorng Khe. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.