Authorities in Cambodia have arrested two police officials for their roles in an alleged torture case that resulted in the death this month of a man who was detained for joining a land-rights protest.
Tuy Sros, a resident of the Ou Chrov district of Banteay Meanchey province, died in police custody on Jan. 1 after being held from Dec. 28 to Dec. 31 following the protest, in which four other villagers were also detained.
Authorities on Jan. 18 arrested Colonel Sar Bunsoeung, Banteay Meanchey deputy provincial military police chief, and First Lieutenant Chhoy Rathana, an officer working with the provincial anti-drug office, a commission set up by Cambodia’s National Military Police to investigate the case said in a statement on Sunday.
The two officers were charged with “intentional violence and aggravated assault” after they confessed to being “negligent in their duty” by allowing the five villagers to be assaulted by other detainees who had been taken into custody on drug charges, the statement said.
The detention of Sar Bunsoeung and Chhoy Rathana, who since Sunday have been held at the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court amid an investigation into their case, came after Prime Minister Hun Sen last week ordered the arrest of those responsible for torturing the villagers.
On Tuesday, a witness to the torture named An Roun, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was questioned by members of Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior for around half an hour about what he had seen, after testifying before the National Military Police commission last week.
“I saw it with my own eyes after I was awoken by the sounds of hitting and shouting—they held [Tuy Sros’] nose and mouth closed [to keep him quiet] while they kneed him in the chest until he fainted for around 20 minutes, and then they started beating him again,” An Roun said.
“The officer named Sar Bunsoeung hit the victim and pointed a pistol at his temple, threatening to kill him, saying, ‘I took 11 bodies out of this place, do you want to be the 12th?’”
An Roun also claimed that Tuy Sros “died because of injuries he sustained from beatings and torture” while held from Dec. 28 to Dec. 31.
Soeung Senkaruna, an official with local rights group Adhoc, told RFA on Tuesday that the arrests of the two officers was “insufficient” and demanded an investigation to find out who else is responsible for the torture.
He also called for a probe into who was responsible for releasing a statement by Banteay Meanchey authorities in the immediate aftermath of Tuy Sros’ death saying that he had “died as a result of sickness.”
“The statement was fake and there should be an investigation resulting in an administrative punishment for those who released it,” he said.
Soeung Senkaruna said authorities have questioned the villagers involved in the incident because “many people are interested” in what happened, and investigators are keen to show that they are working on the case.
But he cautioned against them “issuing an inaccurate report” to senior officials, calling for transparency and proceeding according to the law to find justice for the victims.
The developments in the alleged torture case came as police from Phnom Penh’s Pou Senchey district on Tuesday interviewed Khieu Din, a member of Cambodia’s banned opposition party, after he was attacked by two unknown assailants with a pole a day earlier while he was riding his motorbike.
The attack left Khieu Din with a broken skull and made him the 14th activist with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to face an assault by masked men since Sam Rainsy, the acting president of opposition, in August last year announced plans to return home from self-imposed exile to lead a restoration of democracy in the country through peaceful protests.
Khieu Din’s wife, Pich Sokna, told RFA that her husband was not involved in any disputes prior to the attack and said he is cooperating with authorities, including by providing them with security camera video of the incident.
District Police Chief Morm Vuthy said authorities are reviewing the security camera footage, but that the suspects rode a motorbike without a license plate, making the case difficult to investigate.
Phnom Penh CNRP Chief Morm Phalla told RFA the attack was “politically motivated,” echoing earlier statements by the opposition that the string of assaults was part of a campaign orchestrated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sow fear within the community.
Police have yet to arrest any suspects in the cases.
Adhoc’s Soeung Senkaruna on Tuesday urged authorities to find those responsible for the attacks and hold them to account.
“If the attacks were politically motivated against party activists, it creates a very bad image for Cambodia,” he said.
In September 2017, Cambodian authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha for attempting to topple the government, and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months later for its role in the alleged plot.
The move to dissolve the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Kem Sokha’s treason trial began on Jan. 15, with prosecutors at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court showing a two-minute clip of a video they say is proof that the CNRP chief committed “conspiracy with foreign powers,” but his lawyers said it lacked the context of the full hour-long footage and could not be used to convict him. Kem Sokha faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison if he is found guilty.
The video cited as evidence by the court was recorded in 2013 and shows Kem Sokha discussing a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. Embassy had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest in 2017.
On Tuesday, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Chan Chen told RFA that the court had agreed to show the whole hour-long video after the trial reconvenes on Jan. 22, and that the footage “will prove his innocence.”
Court authorities have also agreed to allow reporters and NGOs to monitor the trial for the first time after initially reserving 30 seats for diplomatic staff and family members, but facing criticism from local rights groups and the international community for not providing greater access to the public.
They said that 10 spots will be made available to the media and NGOs on Wednesday and Thursday because “the court will not question witnesses yet.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pheap Aun and Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.