Three members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s military bodyguard, convicted of the brutal beating of a pair of opposition lawmakers near the National Assembly last year, were freed Friday after serving only year in prison.
While Chhay Sarith, Mao Hoeun and Sot Vanny were sentenced to four years in prison, three years of that was suspended in what one of the victims called a “very light” punishment.
“I am so disappointed with the early release of the three perpetrators,” Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Kong Saphea told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The sentence was very light and is not commensurate with the brutality they inflicted on me and my colleague,” he added. “My personal safety and security and that of my colleagues’ are at risk after these men are free.”
Though he will appeal the decision, Kong Saphea sees little hope for justice in Cambodia.
“The only hope I have is when the CNRP wins the next elections,” he said. “I hope the judicial system will be fully reformed so that justice can done for victims like me.”
The brazen attack, which took place in broad daylight while video cameras filmed it, was condemned by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Human rights groups characterized the assault as part of a wider campaign Hun Sen and his allies are waging against the political opposition in Cambodia.
On Oct. 26, 2015 Kong Saphea and another CNRP lawmaker Nhay Chamroeun were dragged from their vehicles and savagely beaten by protesters after the two men attended a morning meeting of the legislature.
The attack occurred as more than 1,000 supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) surrounded the parliament building, calling for CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha to step down as first vice president of the National Assembly.
Pankhem Bunthon, an assistant to Prime Minister Hun Sen — a position equivalent to deputy director general in the government’s public service — led the protests calling for the dismissal of Kem Sokha, who is now the target of a wide-ranging government investigation into an alleged affair with a young hairdresser.
Looking to the U.S.
There may not be much hope for an appeal in Cambodia, but Nhay Chamroeun, who is Cambodian-American, is also expected to seek a legal remedy in the U.S. as he plans to join a lawsuit against the Cambodian government and Hun Sen’s eldest son in U.S. courts.
U.S. attorney Morton Sklar told local media that Nhay Chamroeun has asked him to add the lawmaker’s attack to the legal action being taken against Lieutenant General Hun Manet, and the Cambodia government.
That suit by CNRP opposition official Meach Sovannara, who also holds U.S. and Cambodian citizenship, seeks compensation for the emotional and financial damage borne by Meach Sovannara’s family for, among other things, what the suit calls his wrongful imprisonment and torture.
Foreign governments and officials are generally protected by sovereignty from being brought to trial in the U.S., as they are in other countries. But Meach Sovannara’s case is testing those exceptions.
The suit alleges that Hun Manet’s family connections and leadership role within Cambodia’s security forces make him liable for the emotional and financial damages borne by Sovannara’s family.
Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s anti-terror unit, is deputy chairman of the joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, and is deputy commander of the Prime Minister's Bodyguard Unit, an elite force that has often been at the center of complaints about rights abuses.
Hun Manet is widely viewed as the successor to his father, who has ruled the country for more than 30 years.
While inside Prey Sar, a convicted man’s family gets a boost
While the bodyguards who beat the lawmakers served a year inside Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar prison, their time there was unlike most of the inmates unlucky enough to be imprisoned there, according to witnesses.
Soon after the 34-year-old Mao Hoeu, from Village 5 in Khsay Kha Commune, began doing time in Prey Sar prison, his family became upwardly mobile.
Mao Hoeun’s mother and siblings were able to trade their jobs as tobacco workers in the Neak Loeung market for the more genteel life as business people running a grocery business in a five meter by seven meter apartment, neighbors told RFA earlier this year.
The apartment costs around $35,000, a price no tobacco laborer could afford and a surprising step up the economic ladder that left neighbors wondering if somebody powerful was looking out for Mao Hoeun and his family.
“Since the day he was locked behind bars, his family’s living condition has improved significantly,” a villager told RFA. “The current living condition of the family is so much different from before. There is no way the family could afford to buy that apartment. I heard someone bought it for them.”
Mao Hoeun’s younger sister, Mao Vannak, told RFA that a cousin, a successful dentist, bought the apartment and is looking out for the family by temporarily renting it to them.
Mao Hoeun’s neighbors agreed to talk to RFA only on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation as many of Mao Hoeun’s comrades in Hun Sen’s elite bodyguard unit lived in the same neighborhood.
A guilty plea
On May 27 Mao Hoeun, Chay Sarith and Soth Vanny pled guilty to the assault.
While video shows more than a dozen people attacking the lawmakers while police officers stand idly by, the three men were the only people prosecuted for the beating.
During each court appearance the three men didn’t appear to be nervous or concerned about their fate. For men on trial, they walked around confidently, smoking cigarettes and wearing scarves in the court-house complex.
A year in Prey Sar is no one’s idea of a vacation, but it was a brief stay compared to the 7-20 year sentences handed out to opposition party activists for the 2014 Freedom Park protests that escalated into a riot.
Not only is Prey Sar notorious for overcrowding, poor living conditions and prisoner abuse, it is also notorious as a place where everything is for sale and the well-connected are looked out for.
It’s a pattern that appeared to repeat itself with Mao Hoeun, Chay Sarith and Soth Vanny.
A prison guard at Prey Sar, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that Hun Sen’s bodyguards displayed significant authority inside the prison.
Sources tell RFA that Mao Hoeun was also seen in the village when he should have been inside Prey Sar.
Mao Vannak told RFA her older brother had remained in the prison since his arrest. The guard, however, was unable to confirm whether or not Hun Sen’s bodyguards got passes to leave and return to Prey Sar.
Scarves and walkie-talkies
The attack on the CNRP politicians in October 2015 was notable not just for its violence, but for the fact that it was caught on several videos that graphically showed the brutal assault on the lawmakers.
The lawmakers suffered broken noses, a ruptured eardrum, broken bones and teeth. Nhay Chamraoen required surgery to save his sight in one eye.
The assault also carried the hallmarks of a well-planned, well-coordinated attack by well-trained individuals.
In the videos two-dozen men are seen dragging the lawmakers from a car before beating them and kicking them while they lay helpless on the ground.
Colorful scarves are tied around the men’s waists, and some of them used walkie-talkies as they made their repeated attacks.
While Mao Hoeun, Chay Sarit and Sot Vanny were clearly capable of beating defenseless lawmakers senseless, there are doubts that they could have carried out a coordinated attack, complete with communications.
Was there an order?
Kong Saphea is convinced that the attack was ordered by someone looking out for the men.
“I don’t believe those perpetrators acted on their own behalf when attacking lawmakers, who have immunity, without orders from the top,” he said in an earlier RFA interview. “The attacks were ordered and well organized.”
Senior Cambodian military officers speaking confidentially have asserted that within government circles, it is widely believed that the prosecution of the three men were meant to squelch suspicions of involvement of “the higher levels” of government in the attack.
Mao Hoeun, Chay Sarit and Sot Vanny have denied they were acting under orders. The men said they were driven to the act when the lawmakers shouted insults at them, calling them puppets of Vietnam, the country that helped install Hun Sen in power three decades earlier.
The lawmakers denied making the insults, and there is no evidence in videos that upholds the guards’ version of events.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to conduct a thorough investigation into the attacks on the CNRP lawmakers by Hun Sen’s bodyguards when the three bodyguards turned themselves in to authorities.
“The prosecution of the three bodyguard unit members for the brazen and brutal attack only scratches the surface in holding all those involved responsible,” Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director said at the time. “Prosecuting only three people while blocking investigations into the attack’s other planners and participants shows a blatant cover-up by the government and courts.”
In Human Rights Watch 61-page report “Dragged and Beaten: The Cambodian Government's Role in the October 2015 Attack on Opposition Politicians,” Human Rights Watch found little evidence that supports the notion the three men acted alone. The London-based organization called for a U.N. investigation into the beatings.
According to the report, it is likely that senior politicians and military personnel were involved as the beatings happened just a day after Hun Sen threatened to retaliate against the opposition in Cambodia after anti-government demonstrations had embarrassed him during a visit to France.
“If someone comes back at you tomorrow in Phnom Penh with the same game, don’t be angry,” Hun Sen told the Paris audience, according to the report.
Hun Sen has suggested that his opponents were seeking a “color revolution,” a reference to pro-democracy movements that sprung up in Ukraine, Georgia and other countries around the world where protesters rallied under colored banners.
On Thursday he issued a call to the nation’s armed forces to put down any so-called “color revolution.”
“All armed forces are obliged to absolutely ensure that Cambodia is free from any color revolutions,” the Cambodian strong man wrote in a Facebook post.
“Such a revolution will harm people’s happiness and peace in Cambodia,” he wrote. “Armed forces shall protect the legitimate government.”
He made similar remarks during the Police Academy of Cambodia’s graduation ceremony on Thursday.
Local elections in Cambodia are set for next year and national elections are scheduled for 2018.
Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party retained control in the 2013 national elections, but the CNRP made up ground and Hun Sen and the CPP appear eager to ensure that those inroads go no further in 2018.
With the bodyguards now free, it may be impossible to know for sure whether someone high up in the Cambodian government ordered the attacks last year because no one is looking into the case.
“The trial’s limited scope means that evidence about possible involvement by high-ranking political and military figures is being ignored,” Adams said after the sentencing of the body guards.
Reported and translated by RFA's Khmer Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.