Arrest warrants have been issued for generals in the 1997 grenade attack on an opposition demonstration that killed 16, injured 150. The gathering was organised to denounce the judiciary’s lack of independence and judicial corruption.
A French court has issued arrest warrants for two senior Cambodian generals for the grenade attack on an opposition political rally in Phnom Penh on March 30, 1997, exactly 25 years ago, Human Rights Watch said today.
16 people were killed in the attack and more than 150 were left injured. The court order states that a summons was issued for Prime Minister Hun Sen for his role in the attack, but that the French government blocked its delivery, citing head of state immunity.
The order, issued on December 30, 2021, by a Paris court stated that arrest warrants had been issued on March 19, 2020, against Gen. Huy Piseth, then-chief of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, and Gen. Hing Bun Heang, then-deputy-chief of the unit, for their role in planning and orchestrating the attack.
“The Cambodian government has never taken action against those responsible for the 1997 grenade attack on the opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his supporters because there is substantial evidence that Prime Minister Hun Sen and his generals were behind this mass atrocity,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The French government should request a European Arrest Warrant and an Interpol Red Notice to take Gen. Huy Piseth and Gen. Hing Bun Heang into custody and produce them before the court for trial in Paris.”
The order was issued in a case filed in Paris by Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition and target of the attack, who was injured by a grenade fragment. His bodyguard died after taking the full force of one of the grenades as he shielded Rainsy.
The judge’s order stated that it appeared that Sam Rainsy was the target of the grenade attack organised and carried out on 30 March 1997 by the chief and the deputy chief of the prime minister’s special bodyguards. Heavily armed men were deployed with instructions to position themselves in a line at a reasonable distance behind the demonstrators so as to facilitate the retreat of the grenade throwers to the CPP military compound and to prevent anyone from pursuing them.
A crowd of approximately 200 supporters of the opposition Khmer Nation Party (KNP), led by Rainsy, a former finance minister, gathered in a park across from the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to denounce the judiciary’s lack of independence and judicial corruption.
In a well-coordinated attack, unidentified assailants threw four grenades into the crowd in an attempt to kill Rainsy, killing protesters and bystanders, including children, and blowing limbs off street vendors. After the first grenade exploded, Rainsy’s bodyguard, Han Muny, threw himself on top of Rainsy. He took the full force of a subsequent grenade and died at the scene. Rainsy escaped with a minor leg injury.
The demonstration was the first time the opposition had received official permission from both the Interior Ministry and the Phnom Penh municipality for a rally after repeated refusals. The change in the government’s position fuelled speculation that the demonstration was authorized so it could be attacked, Human Rights Watch said.
The police, who had previously maintained a high-profile presence at opposition demonstrations in an effort to discourage them, had an unusually low profile that day. A large contingent was grouped around the corner, instead of inside the park itself. Other police units were at a nearby police station in full riot gear on high alert, an unusual precaution that suggested they knew that there would be violence at the demonstration. However, the army’s Brigade 70, Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, was at the park in full riot gear. It was the first time it had appeared at an opposition demonstration.
Instead of ensuring an independent and thorough investigation into the attack, Hun Sen immediately called for the arrest of Rainsy and other demonstration organizers, and prevented them from leaving the country, Human Rights Watch said. The court noted “the lack of cooperation of the Cambodian authorities throughout this judicial investigation. This is despite the fact that Cambodia has cooperated with the French justice system in a murder case involving a French family in Cambodia.”
On February 10, 2017, the Paris court issued a summons to Hun Sen to appear in court. But on August 8, 2017, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs informed that “Hun Sen, in his capacity as head of the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia, held absolute immunity from jurisdiction, which prevented him from being tried in France and from being subjected to any measure of constraint, such as a summons to appear for possible indictment, being taken by a French authority.”