A security threat to an FBI agent in 1997 and concerns over US cooperation with Cambodia put a grenade attack investigation on hold, according to recent media reports.
The agent, Tom Nicoletti, was sent to Cambodia to look into the attack, on an opposition rally, which killed sixteen people and wounded more than 100 others, including an American citizen.
Nicoletti, who is now retired, told the English-language Cambodia Daily that by the time he left Cambodia, the evidence he had collected was not up to US standards for prosecution. He had planned to return, he said in e-mails to the newspaper, but an unfavorable situation in the country prevented it.
Nicoletti said he had been pulled out of Cambodia for fear he may be the target of attacks for his investigation, which pointed toward possible collusion in the attack on opposition leader Sam Rainsy by members of then-second prime minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit.
The FBI produced nine sketches of three suspects, including Kong Samrith, also known as Brazil. In a report released to the Cambodian Daily following a Freedom of Information request, the FBI said its investigation had been hampered and that agents had difficulty discerning which witnesses were telling the truth.
One witness told FBI investigators he saw a line of Hun Sen bodyguards allow two grenade-throwers to pass as they fled the carnage of the scene in front of Wat Botum, near what was then the National Assembly building.
The witness “pursued but was prevented from heading towards the wat and nearby CPP headquarters,” according to the report. “As he turned, he was kicked by the soldiers and knocked to the ground.”
However, in another interview, one of Hun Sen’s bodyguards gave a different account, according to recordings posted on www.cambodiagrenade.info. In an interview with another investigator in the case, Peter Hoffman, the bodyguard denied such an incident took place.
“When the grenade throwers were running toward your position, how many people were chasing them?” Hoffman asked the unnamed witness, who answered through a translator.
“I have no intention to count how many people [were] chasing the throwers, and I have no knowledge that those people were the grenade throwers,” the witness replied.
“Do you have good eyesight?” Hoffman asked.
“No, no problem with the eyes. The reason is that there are a lot of demonstrators.”
“So three or four people throw grenades into a crowd,” Hoffman asked, “and you didn’t see anything?”
“I see nothing.”
Ultimately, the FBI investigation became inactive and failed to identify the perpetrators.
“The Cambodian police could finish the investigation any time they want,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “They would have sufficient information in their files. They just choose not to do it. Maybe because they don’t want to do it, and maybe because they are afraid of Hun Sen.”
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, denied police were unwilling to pick up the case.
“We lost track when we lost Brazil,” he said, referring to one of the suspects. “At the time, it was chaotic, and Brazil died for no reason in a camp of a political party that I prefer not to name.”
He was referring to bloody street fighting between the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, and Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a coup that took place months after the grenade attack, July 5 and July 6.
Khieu Sopheak also blamed FBI agent Nicoletti for failing in the case.
“What Tom Nicoletti did was not professional,” Khieu Sopheak said. “He was assigned to conduct the investigation, but could not solve it. Once he concluded a case, he just kept it.”
“The FBI agent was very stupid,” said Mok Chito, who is now head of the criminal police division and was head of Phnom Penh penal police when the attack took place. “He does not know how to investigate. He sometimes listened to other people without knowing [who the subject was]. I remember that in one of its reports, the FBI said I was Hun Sen’s nephew and was chief of municipal police.”
Rights group and families of the victims have insisted that the FBI come back and conclude their investigation to bring those responsible to court.
“I cannot speculate on what the FBI may or may not do in the future regarding this case,” John Johnson, a spokesman for the US Embassy, said in an e-mail. “I can only say that their original investigation was inconclusive and the US Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue the case.”
He referred further questions to the FBI in Washington, who have not responded to written questions.
The FBI said in its 1997 report a continued investigation could threaten cooperation with Cambodia, but Adams, of Human Rights Watch, said the investigation should be concluded.
“The US doesn’t need Cambodia,” he said. “Cambodia needs the US, and I think the US should remember that. China is an increasing power, but not a superpower, and the US can work with other countries to put pressure on Cambodia to improve its human rights situation, to try to improve governance and dealing with things like corruption and the rule of law.”