Investigating a deadly grenade attack 13 years ago, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation found Cambodian authorities uncooperative, in a case that remains untouched yet unclosed.
The FBI was brought in to investigate the March 30, 1997, attack on an opposition rally that killed 16 Cambodians and wounded more than 100 others, along with an American citizen.
The FBI identified three suspects, producing nine sketches, but agents faced difficulty interviewing police and other officials affiliated with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, according to the English-language Cambodia Daily, which ran a series in December based on FBI documents released under a Freedom of Information request.
The FBI reported at the time it received doctored evidence, while Cambodian authorities seemed to have little interest in identifying the attackers, forcing agents to find information from outside sources, the Cambodia Daily reported, quoting the FBI’s case file.
The FBI also said some police may have had advanced knowledge of the attack, a claim an Interior Ministry spokesman called “baseless.”
“Police are very happy when each demonstration ends successfully,” the spokesman, Khieu Sopheak, told VOA Khmer. “We are the Cambodian police. We have no intention to provide access to grenade-throwers to attack our people.”
Khieu Sopheak refuted claims that police did not cooperate with the FBI; the suspect sketches were a result of police collaboration, he said.
In the event, the FBI investigation yielded few tangible results, and its final report has been kept from the public eye. Both the FBI and Cambodian police say the case remains open to new leads.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he was dubious of the enthusiasm of local police to bring the case to a close.
“Even though I was the target of the attack, I waited a few weeks before the police came to talk to me,” Sam Rainsy, who is in France, told VOA Khmer recently. “But the way they asked me questions was not in depth. They were like political questions.”
“Those who really wanted to know the truth were the American [agents],” he said. “I met with them and saw that they had high technique, with conscience, and the way they worked was professional and produced valuable results.”
According to a US congressional report on the attack, Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, told a congressional delegation in 1999 he was conducting his own investigation. No results from that investigation have been published.
Contacted recently, Om Yentieng said he could not discuss the investigation.
Sam Rainsy said Om Yentieng never contacted him, and the opposition leader vowed to bring the case to a foreign country like the US at the appropriate time.
“When the case reaches a court in the US, based on information that we have newly acquired, [the court] will have its procedures and modern techniques to continue an investigation and reveal more identities of the grenade-throwers and those behind them,” he said.
Rights groups meanwhile say the FBI should finish its investigation.
“They always say that it’s not closed, but actually it’s been inactive since 1998,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “They haven’t enough evidence to proceed. The lead investigator outlined the case, [claiming] that clearly the bodyguard unit of Hun Sen was involved. This was clear at the time, of course, but that was his conclusion more than 10 years ago. It would be really simple to complete the investigation…so it’s time for the FBI to do something.”
The Cambodian government has no intention of finding justice in the attack, he said, adding that these days the victims are thought of as opposition supporters, when in fact some were journalists, vendors and bystanders.
Meanwhile, the international community has not done enough to put Cambodia on the course to democracy, he said, saying the attack and subsequent coup in July 1997, “changed Cambodia’s course and made it certain that Hun Sen would remain in power for as long as he has and marginalized the opposition.”