On February 2, a French judge ordered two security aides to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to stand trial for organizing a 1997 grenade attack on a political opposition rally in the capital Phnom Penh that killed 16 people. and at least 120 injured. On February 22, Sovannarith Keo of RFA’s Khmer Service spoke with Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, about the French court’s action and what might happen next. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
RFA: What does this French court’s indictment order mean for Hun Sen’s head bodyguard, Hing Bun Heang, and for Huy Piseth in particular, and what does it mean for Hun Sen himself? same ?
Brad Adams: Well, I think for the two individuals, Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth, they will never be able to travel to Europe again. They will not be able to travel to North America. There should be a European arrest warrant issued under the common procedure of the European Union. There should be an Interpol red notice, which means they could be arrested anywhere outside of Cambodia. Of course, they should be arrested in Cambodia, but we know that the Cambodian government has already refused to arrest them. This could lead to tougher sanctions against both.
Hing Bun Heang has been sanctioned in the past, and I expect they will both face additional sanctions that would affect their overseas assets and any businesses they are involved in. And of course we know that Hing Bun Heang in particular is very corrupt and would be subject to punishment for that as well in time. It would therefore be illegal to trade with them or do business with them if you are a foreign company based in certain jurisdictions.
For Hun Sen, the court judgment or court order clearly indicates that if he had not been granted immunity, he would also have been subject to an arrest warrant. So will Hun Sen be arrested? No, not now, unless his immunity is challenged and lifted by a French or other jurisdiction. But I think it will be very difficult for the European Union and other democracies at least to invite him to bilateral meetings or to participate in multilateral meetings, because we now have an independent tribunal in a very well-established democracy which concludes that the evidence shows that Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth organized and ordered the grenade attack, and that only one person could have given them permission to do so. And it was the prime minister.
This is something, by the way, that Huy Piseth acknowledged when questioned by the FBI in 1997. He said only a prime minister could order this when the agent [Tom] Nicoletti asked him why bodyguards would be present in this park that day when they had never been present at other demonstrations before. And he admitted it.
RFA: You mentioned earlier that there will be increased sanctions against these two individuals and that there should be an Interpol Red Notice or a so-called European Arrest Warrant issued against them both. Do you think that French justice will probably request this kind of Interpol red notice or other international arrest warrant against these two individuals in the future?
Brad Adams: Yes. The way it works in the French system is that it’s up to the prosecutor to make that request. But the problem is that there is no transparency, so we will have to dig, and maybe you, as journalists, can also dig, to find out if and when the prosecutor makes this request. They do not have to make this request in public. They can, but they don’t have to. So we don’t know when it will happen, but I can’t believe it won’t happen, because the case is very serious It’s a case of attempted assassination, according to French justice, and attempted murder — the attempted assassination of Sam Rainsy and murder of 16 people. And that’s obviously a very, very serious crime.
RFA: Will your organization, Human Rights Watch, pursue Interpol’s request for a red notice against them?
Brad Adams: Yes, of course, we will push very hard for that. But in the end, it’s up to the French authorities to decide. I will say that the French authorities transmitted the request, the summons to appear before the French court of Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth from the French judge to the Ministry of Justice in France, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, to the embassy in Phnom Penh, and to the Cambodian government. Thus, the system worked well in France to pursue this case although the Cambodian government refused to make Huy Piseth and Hing Bun Heang available for questioning. And that’s why the arrest warrant was issued. The arrest warrant was issued when they failed to appear as requested by the French court.
RFA: Can this indictment order be appealed to the Court of Cassation in France?
Brad Adams: No, there is no way to appeal at this stage. That case will now go to trial probably sometime next year, when evidence will be heard in court. And people like me will be called to testify. Hing Bun Heang and Huy Piseth will have the right to appear and testify if they wish. And the court would come to a conclusion as to whether or not there is enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict them.
RFA: If both are convicted by the French court in an upcoming proceeding, as you mentioned, what is the likelihood that a conviction will be handed down against them?
Brad Adams: I can’t say that. I would expect that in a case with so many deaths and so many injuries, it would be a very heavy prison sentence. That’s what would normally happen, but it’s impossible for me to say if it would happen after a conviction. If there is a conviction, the court will have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it had organized [the attack] and planned to kill, and that’s about as serious a charge as one would expect.
FRG: It looks like there will likely be a long way to go before the French court begins to hear the merits of this case. Do we know a specific date for this hearing?
Brad Adams: No, there is no date. The estimate given to me by the lawyers in charge of the case is that it would generally be 12 to 18 months after the order of the magistrate.
RFA: Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, Pierre-Olivier Sur, declared on February 2 to AFP that “French justice is tightening seriously, if not dangerously, against Prime Minister Hun Sen. Without his diplomatic immunity, he would be in the dock instead of his subordinates. What is the likelihood that Hun Sen will be summoned in the future to testify in court on the merits of this case?
Brad Adams: I expect that to happen the day after Hun Sen leaves, if he ever does. And, of course, we don’t know. Is he really planning on stepping down and letting his son take over, or will he stay until he dies? We don’t really know. But I imagine that the day after he leaves office, this lawyer will return to court to ask for Hun Sen’s summons, and that his non-appearance will follow the same path as this case. He would then be the subject of an arrest warrant. There is no reason for lawyers not to make this request. There is no reason why the court, given its order, which suggests that Hun Sen was only protected because of his diplomatic status, would not make such a move.
RFA: So that means that if Hun Sen resigns as prime minister and loses his immunity, an arrest warrant could be issued to him. In terms of international legal cooperation, it is likely that in the coming month, as ASEAN President, Hun Sen along with other ASEAN Heads of State will be invited by the US President to attend the special ASEAN-US summit at the White House. Is it likely that the French court will issue a surprise arrest warrant and then send it to the United States for help in executing it?
Brad Adams: You know, I wish they would, because I believe he was responsible for that horrible attack. But no, they made it clear they wouldn’t. They believe that his diplomatic status gives him immunity while in office. So I don’t think there’s a chance of that happening. However, it must be stressed that this is the interpretation of the French government. It is not necessarily correct that he enjoys diplomatic immunity. This could be challenged in court one day in France. You know, each country has to decide whether to grant diplomatic immunity to a head of government when they travel. And most do, because they are afraid that if they arrest a prime minister, then their own prime minister might be arrested while traveling. But that’s not the same as being an accredited diplomat where you have diplomatic immunity. And it is a choice that governments make, to grant diplomatic immunity to traveling officials.
RFA: For my final question, how would this French court’s indictment order affect Hun Sen’s international image overall, especially when he attends the special ASEAN-US summit at the White House?
Brad Adams: Well, we are going to point out to journalists like you and international media that the ASEAN President was indirectly accused of committing mass murder by a French court. Now, of course, he’s been accused of this and more by many other people over the years. He was accused of being responsible for the massacres during the 1998 elections and the murders of journalists and activists etc. Evidence and accusations against Hun Sen abound. But for a French court, making that order is very different from human rights. Watch or a Cambodian NGO issuing a report. So I think it will increase the attention he gets. It will be a black eye for ASEAN. It’s going to make Cambodia look bad and I think it’s going to make a lot of governments think seriously about how they should interact with Hun Sen. It cannot be business as usual for some governments. You know we don’t have much hope for ASEAN, China or India. I mean, they’ll do business with anyone. But we hope other democracies that say they put human rights at the forefront of their foreign policy will reconsider their interaction with Hun Sen.