(New York, March 29, 2017) – The Cambodian government has shielded and promoted those implicated in the deadly grenade attack on an opposition party rally 20 years ago that left at least 16 people dead and more than 150 injured, Human Rights Watch said today. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which became involved because an American citizen, Ron Abney, was severely injured, should complete its long-stalled investigation into the March 30, 1997 attack against the opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Portraits of victims are displayed at a memorial for victims of a grenade attack, which took place near Cambodia's National Assembly on March 30, 1997.
“Compelling evidence of the involvement of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit in this atrocity means a serious domestic investigation never has – and never will – take place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The United Nations and Cambodia’s donors, who provide a large percentage of the national budget, should demand justice for victims for a crime that helped derail Cambodia’s democratic transition.”

On March 30, 1997, 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 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.

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. At gunpoint, the bodyguards then stopped members of the crowd who were pursuing the grenade-throwers and threatened to shoot those who did not retreat.

Instead of opening a serious investigation, Hun Sen immediately called for the arrest of the demonstration’s organizers and instructed police not to allow them to leave the country. “We had permission, how can we be blamed for these deaths?” Rainsy said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. “It is very cynical.”

In a June 1997 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Hing Bun Heang, the deputy commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit at the time and reportedly the person in operational control of the unit, threatened to kill journalists who alleged that Hun Sen’s bodyguards were involved. “Publish this: tell them that I want to kill them… publish it, say that I, chief of the bodyguards, have said this. I want to kill… I am so angry.”