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FBI Defends Phnom Penh Office as Rights Tool

[Editor's note: this is the first in a two-part series examining the FBI's new office in Phnom Penh]. For Part II, click here.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the US's leading counterterrorism agencies, christened a new office in Phnom Penh, it drew pointed rebukes from groups critical of Cambodia's grim human rights record.

Security experts say there are good reasons for the office, and a top FBI official told VOA Khmer recently that advocates should be happy to see the FBI in country. But not everyone is convinced, and the FBI's office has opened a prickly debate over the protection of human rights in an expanding war on terror.

From his office in the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, Thomas Fuentes, Special Agent in Charge of Overseas Operations for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, manages 75 offices around the world. The newest of these opened in Cambodia in March. The FBI needs a branch in Cambodia to help with regional counterterrorism and other legal efforts, Fuentes said in a recent interview. A strengthened relationship with the national police—something rights groups have been quick to censure—has been a natural byproduct of that expansion.

"The efforts we've had in the past in various investigations have been very successful, and we know that it's a partnership that we would like to have become stronger," Fuentes said.

The FBI and the Cambodian police have conducted training and investigations together, and the FBI is willing to help the national police address human trafficking and the sex trade, pervasive problems often bemoaned by human rights groups.

None of that would be possible without close cooperation with the national police, Fuentes said.

That relationship has critics worried and is at the center of a debate over how committed the US is to the promotion of human rights abroad.

"Our police and their chief haven't had [a] good reputation at all in Cambodia. They have, I think, violated human rights quite a lot over the years," said Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong.

Lao Mong Hay and others say the FBI's new office has legitimized a sometimes brutal and exploitive police force and could therefore worsen Cambodia's rights environment.

Fuentes disagrees. With a fulltime office in Cambodia, the FBI is more likely to learn of rights abuses, which could help the United States address them, he said.

"You're going to have a much better opportunity to be told of something that may be wrong or needs to be addressed," he said. "So if individuals, if various groups have concerns about what may be going on in Cambodia, they should be more supportive of the FBI being there fulltime, instead of less."

An outspoken critic of the FBI's role in Cambodia, past and present, has been Human Rights Watch.

The international group has repeatedly called for investigations into alleged crimes by National Police Chief Hok Lundy, including involvement in the 1997 grenade attack that killed at least 16 Cambodians and injured one American, as well as extrajudicial killings and human and drug trafficking.

The FBI investigated the grenade attack but released no findings implicating Hok Lundy, and the police chief has denied any involvement in the crimes. Fuentes hosted Hok Lundy in Washington in April, instantly drawing the vitriol of Human Rights Watch and others. If the FBI now engages in a "critical relationship" with the Cambodian police, the new office would be fine, said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. But such a relationship is unlikely.

"It's perfectly appropriate where there are serious international criminal syndicates, whether it's human trafficking or counterterrorism or something, to work with law enforcement authorities in any country," Adams said. "But you've got to know what you're dealing with, and here you're dealing with an extremely corrupt and violent force that has never put public safety as its first order of business, or crime solving. It's all about making money and controlling the political system."

Those concerns aside, analysts say that an expanded presence in Southeast Asia will help the US fill a regional intelligence gap.

"I think one of the reasons why the FBI has opened an office in Cambodia is because that part of mainland Southeast Asia is a big black hole," said Peter Chalk, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation.

Conditions in Cambodia could make it attractive to terrorists, even if they don't directly threaten Cambodians, he said.

"We haven't really seen any concerted attacks within the region, but, you know, the lawlessness of the region, a Muslim population there, porous borders, corruption, all of those factors avail a fairly conducive logistical environment" for terrorist groups, he said.

Terrorists are attracted to countries with weak rule of law, where they think they're safe, the FBI's Fuentes said. Having an office in Phnom Penh will prevent small clues to their whereabouts from slipping away.

"You know, it may be one little piece of the puzzle, but if we're getting information provided by the Cambodians, and we're getting information from the Thai and from the Indonesian national police and the Malaysians and the Australian federal police—all those little pieces may fit together to form a picture," he said.

Adams, of Human Rights Watch, said US officials must be sure they are getting true terrorists, not fall guys, from the Cambodians.

"I'm sure that [the government has] invented potential terror plots that the US is in no position to verify and wrapped them up," Adams said.

A better tactic would be bolstering Cambodia's weak judicial system and eliminating the culture of corruption that makes Cambodia so attractive to terrorists in the first place, Adams said.

"One of the reasons they say that terrorism is a threat in Cambodia is because the country is so corrupt, top to bottom, including its court system, that basically anybody can come and go in that country and buy protection and hide out there, and that's what the US was worried about," he said.