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American Laments Injustice for 1997 Grenade Attack

A Phnom Penh resident is treated for wounds at Calmette Hospital he received during a mortar attack in the capital in the late afternoon on Saturday July 5,1997. Fighting broke out between troops loyal to the rival prime ministers and shellfire hit downto

While the US FBI has closed its investigation into a deadly grenade attack on an opposition rally 14 years ago, an American injured in the attack says he has not given up.

Ron Abney, the former head of the International Republican Institute in Cambodia, was the sole American injured among at least 150 others when unknown assailants threw a series of grenades into an opposition rally in Phnom Penh.

Sixteen people died in the attack, which took place on March 30, 1997.

In September 2010, Abney filed a complaint with the New York Attorney General’s office, claiming Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was visiting the state at the time, and his subordinates had obstructed justice during an ensuing FBI investigation of the attack. Hun Sen and his representatives have repeatedly declined to comment on the case.

“It’s about those families, the cane seller, Japanese photographer, and myself,” Abney told VOA Khmer in an interview, referring to those who were injured or killed. He called the attack “attempted murder.”

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s never been about me.”

However, it was Abney’s US citizenship that led to an FBI investigation. The FBI interviewed witnesses in and out of the presence of Cambodian officials, in sites from Cambodia, Thailand and the US, according to FBI documents released to VOA Khmer.

The FBI interviewed former bodyguards of Hun Sen, who was co-premier at the time, questioning them about their unusual deployment at the rally and accusations they had abetted the escape of the attackers.

No conclusive results came as a result of the investigation, which was later closed, and no one has ever been convicted for the attack. The FBI concluded that Abney was not the intended target.

Morton Sklar, Abney’s attorney for the New York suit, said in an email the criminal complaint was filed as “part of a larger effort that we have been engaged in to bring pressure on Hun Sen concerning his widespread human rights abuses, past and present.”

Hun Sen can invoke immunity as the head of state as long as he is in power, Sklar added.

Samrith Duonghak, a former journalist who was injured as he covered the 1997 rally, said in an interview recently he was not able to walk for two months after he was hit with shrapnel.

“Worse than my case, some people have lost their husbands and relatives,” he said. “Per rule of law, shall we continue with this culture of impunity?”

Abney, who returns to Cambodia regularly to maintain an orphanage he established here, said he too retains a painful memory of the attack. However, he said he is not afraid to pursue justice for it.

“They always tell me, if you miss the first time with a hand grenade, you’ll miss the second time too,” he said.

Hun Sen advisers contacted by VOA Khmer declined to comment on the case. Adviser Prak Sokhun said the case was out of date. In New York last year, adviser Sry Thamarong said Hun Sen’s administration would pay no heed to Abney’s suit.

In Cambodia, Abney said, there is little remembrance of the attack, which came during a turbulent time in Cambodian politics—and just ahead of the July 1997 coup that put Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party firmly in power.

However, each year the opposition Sam Rainsy Party commemorates the attack, which took place at the north end of Botum Vatey park, where a memorial to victims now stands.

Abney said the case has similarly fallen off the US radar.

“I’m going to have to do a lot of work,” he said. “Now that I’m back from Cambodia, I’ll try to get the legislature involved. So I’m going to work on that every day.”