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Fifteen years on, no justice in grenade attack on opposition party rally

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, March 29, 2012 - The Cambodian government has made no effort over the last 15 years to bring to justice those responsible for a bloody grenade attack on an opposition party rally, Human Rights Watch said today.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should complete its long-stalled investigation into the March 30, 1997 attack, which left at least 16 people dead and more than 150 injured, Human Rights Watch said. Recent reports indicate that French authorities opened a new investigation into the attack early this year.

"The substantial evidence of government involvement in this attack means a serious state investigation will never take place unless the donors, who provide almost half the national budget, demand one," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Donors who are pouring millions into the Khmer Rouge trials to end impunity should not be ignoring a more recent atrocity under the current prime minister."

On March 30, 1997, a crowd of approximately 200 supporters of the opposition Khmer Nation Party (KNP), led by former finance minister Sam Rainsy, 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-planned 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.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, in full riot gear, was present the day of the attack, the first time it appeared at a demonstration. Numerous witnesses reported that the people who had thrown the grenades subsequently ran toward Hun Sen's bodyguards, who were deployed in a line at the west end of the park in front of a closed and guarded residential compound containing the homes of many senior leaders of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Witnesses told investigators from the United Nations and the FBI that the bodyguards opened the line to allow the assailants to pass into the compound. The bodyguards then stopped at gunpoint crowd members who were pursuing the grenade-throwers and threatened to shoot those who did not retreat.

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 police, who had previously maintained a high-profile presence at opposition demonstrations in an effort to discourage them, had an unusually low profile on March 30. A large contingent was grouped around the corner, instead of inside the park itself. Other police units were in a nearby police station in full riot gear on high alert, suggesting they knew that there would be violence at the demonstration.

The March 30 demonstration was the first time the opposition KNP had received official permission from both the Interior Ministry and the Phnom Penh municipality to hold a rally after repeated refusals. The change in the government's position fueled speculation that the demonstration was authorized so it could be attacked, Human Rights Watch said.

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