(New York) – Political considerations should not be allowed to obstruct a full investigation and possible prosecution of a senior ruling party politician by Cambodian authorities in connection with a fatal hit-and-run traffic accident.
On the morning of November 22, 2013, a Lexus sports utility vehicle carrying Cheam Yeap, a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) member of the National Assembly, and driven by his bodyguard collided head-on with a motorbike on a national highway in Kien Svay district of Kandal province. The driver of the motorbike, Pin Sophea, died while her husband,Moeun Tha, sitting behind her, was seriously injured.
Witnesses quoted in news reports said that the Lexus dragged the motorbike for approximately 50 meters before driving on without stopping, leaving the injured couple behind and heading off at high speed towards the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The two victims lay on the roadside for 30 minutes before medical assistance arrived. Pin Sophea died the next day in the hospital of head trauma. It is unclear whether she would have survived if Cheam Yeap had transported her to the nearest hospital.
“The wealthy and powerful in Cambodia have a long history of involvement in hit-and-runs of local people on the country’s highways, fueling public anger,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should enforce the law instead of protecting senior CPP politicians. Donors should tell the government that it should not pervert the law to protect a party official.”
Cheam Yeap’s lawyer has asserted that his vehicle did not stop and therefore did not provide assistance because he feared that because he was a CPP official, he would be at great risk of violent attack by the local population, even though he was not at fault, and that his flight was therefore not in order to evade any of his legal responsibilities. However, the lawyer has not publicly provided evidence that Cheam Yeap would have been at risk. The lawyer said that Cheam Yeap was asleep at the time of the collision, and that after awakening, telephoned the lawyer to tell him what had happened, after which the lawyer contacted the competent authorities to report. Ear Chariya, the road safety program manager at Handicap International, told the media that “while many drivers in Cambodia fear being attacked by angry witnesses in the wake of a crash, only those who attempt to flee the scene are generally at risk of mob violence.”
Cheam Yeap paid funeral costs for the woman who died and medical fees for her husband, to whom he has also given financial compensation. This has resulted in a decision by the husband not to file a civil complaint against Cheam Yeap. However, this has no effect on his potential criminal liability, Human Rights Watch said.
“One reason the rule of law has not been established in Cambodia is that wealthy and powerful people often pay or threaten victims to keep quiet and not cooperate with criminal investigations,” Adams said.
The Kien Svay district police have put together a file on the incident for the Kandal provincial court for possible further criminal investigation. The provincial police also said they are investigating and will send the results to the provincial court, adding that the file “won’t be long.”
However, a senior Cambodian national judicial official, speaking confidentially, told Human Rights Watch that “there is no possibility” the Kandal court will seriously pursue a judicial inquiry, because like other public institutions in the province it acts under CPP instructions. The police are “just going through the motions to please public opinion,” this source stated. He added that it was particularly unlikely that a Kandal province investigating judge would ever issue an indictment or arrest warrant against Cheam Yeap.
Under Cambodian traffic law, Cheam Yeap may be liable for up to three years in prison. Although he was not the driver, he left the scene of an accident while failing to urgently transport an injured person who later died to the hospital.Article 36 of Cambodia’s Land Traffic Law states that in the event of a traffic accident, “the drivers and all persons using the road involved in the accident, and those seeing the event” must “urgently halt their vehicles” and “urgently inform the local authorities or traffic police.” They are “forbidden from leaving the scene before this is mutually agreed or this is authorized by the traffic police.” Article 38 reiterates that they must “remain at the scene until such time that traffic police arrive.” It adds that if the accident involves injuries or death, these same specified persons must “most urgently” inform the authorities or the traffic police and “most urgently” inform the nearest hospital or transport the injured to that hospital. Furthermore, those in possession of any kind of vehicle are prohibited from “unreasonably rejecting requests” for such assistance.
Several articles in chapter 10 of the traffic law set forth criminal penalties to be determined by the courts. The articles specify that the most serious penalty of imprisonment must be imposed in cases of accidents resulting, even if unintentionally, in injury or death, whenever the perpetrator “flees to absent themselves from the scene with the objective of evading their responsibilities” arising from the accident. A sentence of between one and three years in prison is provided.
Cheam Yeap, a member of the CPP Standing Committee and Central Committee, is likely to be protected from prosecution by the fact that the political administration, police, other security forces and judiciary in the jurisdiction where the accident occurred are strictly controlled by CPP and highly partisan in its favor, as in other parts of Cambodia (see details below). He is currently listed on the CPP website as the 23rd ranking member of the party and is a prominent national assembly spokesperson for the party. He has spearheaded the CPP’s rejection of any independent investigation of malpractices during the July elections. In an October 11 interview, he suggested that heavenly intervention might cause Sam Rainsy, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, to be killed in an airplane crash as punishment for seeking an electoral investigation and disrupting Cambodian politics. More recently he has endorsed the methods security forces have employed to deter and suppress anti-CPP demonstrations and unrest, including during incidents in which the use of excessive force has resulted in death and injury, saying the government’s measures are necessary to maintain political security and social order.
Cheam Yeap and his lawyer have pointed out that as a member of parliament he is entitled to parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution. The CPP has for political reasons on many occasions stripped parliamentary immunity from opposition members of parliament, including of Sam Rainsy, former prime minister Norodom Ranariddh, and former foreign minister Norodom Sirivudh, among others. However, no CPP National Assembly member has ever been stripped of immunity, including in non-political cases.
Cambodia’s roads are dangerous, with an average of more than five traffic-related deaths and 15 injuries daily, according to official statistics. This has prompted a high-level campaign led by Prime Minister Hun Sen and promoted by his children. Persons alleged to be criminally liable in connection with traffic accidents resulting in death or injury are routinely detained for trial.
“If Hun Sen wants to tackle road safety and show that he is serious about ending impunity for powerful officials, he will ensure that a serious investigation is conducted into this fatal hit and run,” Adams said.
Political Biography of Cheam Yeap
Cheam Yeap has been a CPP member of the national assembly since the current institution was established in 1981. In the national elections of July 28, he was elected from the Prey Veng province constituency. He is a member of the Standing Committee of the CPP Central Committee and is a frequent party spokesperson. The CPP has designated him a member of the current, contested national assembly standing committee and chairman of its Economy, Finance, Banking, and Audit Commission.
The July elections were neither free nor fair. The results are contested by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP has refused to take its seats until an independent and internationally assisted investigation into election fraud and irregularities is conducted. CPP members of the National Assembly have meanwhile reappointed Hun Sen as prime minister, continuing him in a post he has held since 1985, and also established an all-CPP government.
CPP Domination of Kien Svay District and Kandal Province
The CPP senior leader with centrally-delegated authority over party affairs in Kien Svay district of Kandal province is Gen. Mok Chito, chairman of the Central Justice Directorate of the National Police. Mok Chito is concurrently chairman of a CPP work team assigned to advance CPP political interests in the district, in which capacity he acted in an openly partisan manner in connection with the recent national elections. He has a long history of committing, ordering, and covering up human rights violations, including killings, on behalf of the CPP.
In Kandal, like in other Cambodian provinces, the politically most senior judicial police official is the provincial governor (article 60 of the Code of Criminal Procedure), who is also legally the senior security force official, representing the government “on issues related to security, social and public order, law and human rights” within the provincial jurisdiction (article 154 of the Law on the Administrative Management of the Capital, Provinces, Municipalities, Districts and Khans (municipal wards). A senior national security officer has explained to Human Rights Watch, that in line with such authority, governors chair “Unified Command Committees” that formally oversee the work of the police, gendarmes, local army units, militia and public order personnel throughout their areas of administrative responsibility. Such committees date back to the 1980s and are frequently mentioned in the Khmer media, including with reference to Kandal.
The current Kandal governor, Phay Bunchhoeun, is a political appointee of the CPP and a veteran CPP official in the province. Previously, he was a CPP National Assembly member from Kandal.
Kandal Police Commissioner Eav Chamraoen, who is a personal assistant to Hun Sen, also has responsibilities for strengthening the CPP within the province and has repeatedly acted publicly in support of the CPP.
In conversations with Human Rights Watch, Kien Svay residents have described its governor and chief of police as “CPP loyalists.” District Governor Heng Thiem, who chairs the district Unified Command Committee that oversees all district security forces, has deployed them as part of the CPP’s efforts to deter CNRP demonstrations, supposedly to prevent “social turmoil.” The district police inspector, Pa Sàm-et, has referred to the CNRP as “opportunist no-good elements” whose activities threaten public order and security and which must be suppressed to preempt political “anarchy.” He also oversees matters related to traffic. Within the higher police structure, the traffic police are subordinated to the public order police, the same overarching unit that also commands the intervention police, who have played a leading role in the suppression of anti-government unrest.
Cambodian Parliamentary Immunity Provisions
Referring to the general provisions of the Cambodian Constitution, article 4 of the Law on the Statute for Members of the National Assembly guarantees that by virtue of their immunity they “are not to be charged, arrested, held or detained” for ordinary criminal acts, unless – according to article 7 – that immunity is first lifted. Article 8 specifies that the request for the lifting must come from the minister of justice. According to article 9, lifting parliamentary immunity requires a vote of more than two-thirds of all National Assembly members.