As he begins his work as national police chief, Gen. Neth Savoeun will face a pile of open cases that his predecessor was accused of ignoring, impeding or perpetrating. Rights workers Wednesday wondered whether the new chief would make progress on any of them.
The former police chief, Hok Lundy, who died in a helicopter crash Sunday, failed to solve a number of high-profile cases that pained the nation: extrajudicial killings in the July 1997 coup, a grenade attack on opposition demonstrators that killed 16 in March 1997, and the murders of actress Piseth Pilika, Funcinpec lawmaker Om Rasady and opposition journalist Khim Sambor.
Hok Lundy, a powerful Cambodian People’s Party official close to Prime Minster Hun Sen, was routinely accused of collaboration in most of the cases. His death also left two men in prison widely considered innocent in the 2004 murder of labor leader Chea Vichea.
Rights workers were split on whether a police force under Neth Savoeun, who was a deputy of Hok Lundy and is married to a niece of Hun Sen, would be able to solve any of the cases.
“I don’t believe the appointment of Neth Savoeun as new national police chief will solve the crimes that happened in recent years,” Ou Vireak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said.
Even if Neth Savoeun had a will to investigate them, Ou Vireak said, he could face incarceration like Heng Pov. The former Phnom Penh police chief fingered Hok Lundy for a litany of crimes after Heng Pov fled the country in 2006, only to be extradited and imprisoned.
“When Heng Pov knew of these crimes, the government arrested him and put him in jail,” Ou Vireak said.
Heng Pov is now serving more than 50 years in a Cambodian prison and faces yet more charges for his alleged involvement in crimes while he was city chief under Hok Lundy.
Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, doubted Neth Savoeun would make major changes to the police.
“He would almost certainly continue to politicize the work of the police and tighten Hun Sen’s personalized control over the national police,”Adams said.
Am Sam Art, an investigator for the rights group Licadho, said he believed the appointment could lead to breakthroughs in all the serious cases.
“I believe Neth Savoeun will reform the national police force to have a good reputation, not like Hok Lundy,” he said. “That’s why he should do everything in the interest of the people.”
Chea Mony, brother of slain union worker Chea Vichea and president of the Free Trade Union, said he hoped Neth Savoeun would find “justice” in that case. Two men believed innocent, Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun, are serving 20-year prison sentences for the murder.
“I think Neth Savoeun could find the real killers involved in the murder of my brother,” Chea Mony said. “We are ready to cooperate with him and give him the evidence if the police force needs the local NGOs to help.”
Vorn Phonn, 63, father of Sok Samoeun, appealed to Neth Savoeun to reexamine the case.
“I request to the replacement of Hok Lundy to urge the Supreme Court to judge the cases of my son and nephew Born Samnang,” he said. “I filed a complaint in May 2007, and until now it has been more than a year, so I hope Neth Savoeun can be able to push the judicial process.”
Gen. Neth Savoeun could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said, “Those cases have not been closed by the Ministry of Interior.”
“We will be investigating those crimes to find justice for the people, for the victims,” he said.