Two men have died under suspicious circumstances in Cambodia’s Battambang province, according to their family members and human rights groups, who say few details were released about their deaths and called on authorities to reinvestigate their cases.
Pich Theareth, a 31-year-old also known as Sna, died while in police custody on April 3 following his arrest for allegedly murdering his wife Chea Chanrachna by electrocution out of jealousy that same day. Sna’s sister, Pich Lina, said his wife had died in an accident, but Sna’s mother-in-law accused him of cutting a power line to kill her and demanded that the police arrest him.
He was later found dead of what authorities said was a heart attack, but Pich Lina said that head-to-toe bruising on his face, legs, and arms suggested that he had been tortured to death in custody.
Photos of Sna’s bloody and bruised body quickly circulated on social media and on April 4, amid public criticism of the authorities over his death, Battambang Provincial Police Commissioner Kosal issued a statement. In it, he claimed that Sna had been taken for questioning the day before by the Sangke District Police Inspectorate, during which he admitted to murdering his wife and that he was a “regular drug user” who had taken the methamphetamine known as “ice” twice in just over an hour on the day he killed her.
Kosal said that after questioning him, police locked Sna in the local detention center, where he shouted repeatedly in his cell before making “abnormal noises” and finally going silent. When police inspected his cell, they found him unconscious and rushed him to the hospital, the commissioner said, but he died on the way.
The commissioner claimed that the autopsy showed that Sna had died of a heart attack due to drug overdose and stressed that “police did not beat or torture him.” He did not comment on what had caused the injuries and bruises found on Sna’s body but said that his family is free to file a complaint with the courts seeking justice if they were not satisfied by the police report.
Pich Lina told RFA’s Khmer Service Monday that during Sna’s arrest, police “handcuffed him and beat him at the scene” and then took him away, later informing her of his death. She said she had never heard of her brother taking drugs before and said he was in good health, questioning the police claims and calling for a reinvestigation.
“He was beaten—his ears were bleeding, head was swollen, his arms, legs, and thighs all had bad bruise marks … and both of his ankles showed electric scars,” she said, adding that she believes he was “tortured like an animal.”
“I do not know for sure whether the police allowed the relatives of my brother’s wife to beat him up or the police themselves tortured him. Where is the law? … If my brother is a murderer, put him in prison for 20 to 30 years, or for life. You have no right to take away my brother’s life. A murderer must be convicted.”
‘Common among suspects’
The Battambang provincial coordinating officer for local rights group Adhoc, Yin Mengly, confirmed to RFA that photos of Sna’s body showed “multiple wounds and bruises,” leading him to suspect torture.
He added that any case of torture involves a serious crime because authorities have no right to use such methods, even if the suspect is guilty. But he expressed concern that justice would be unlikely to prevail for the victim and his family because Sna’s body has already been cremated and the case involves police officers.
“Torture and scarring are common among suspects and [the police] do this for the purpose of obtaining answers,” he said.
“Our criminal law also deals with torture and crime [as] Cambodia is a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment … We ask to have independent groups seriously examine his body because heart attacks don’t produce bruises or scars.”
Cases of police officers beating or torturing suspects during arrest or interrogation, causing serious injuries or death, are common in Cambodia. The families of the victims rarely receive justice without intervention by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Article 210 of the Penal Code stipulates that torture or other cruel acts committed against a person shall be punishable by imprisonment for seven to 15 years. In addition, if the crime was committed by a public official within the framework of his function or on the job, the official must be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison.
‘Suicide’ in quarantine
Also on Monday, Adhoc’s Yin Mengly called on authorities to launch an in-depth investigation into the death of 47-year-old migrant worker Ny Mab, who Battambang provincial police said died by suicide in the bathroom of the Bavel-Samaki Secondary School building in Bovel district on April 4 while in quarantine after recently returning home from Thailand to ensure that he had not been infected with the coronavirus.
In a letter to Battambang provincial governor Nguon Rattanak, Bavel district governor Nou Bunyang claimed that Ny Mab suffered from a “severe mental health disorder” that caused him to kill himself and that there is no need for further investigation into his death.
“They have already done an autopsy with the health department concluding that he hanged himself in the bathroom,” provincial police chief Sat Kimsan told RFA on Monday.
“You can get detailed information from the commissioner [website] about his case,” he said, adding that the commissioner’s office “has additional documents” confirming Ny Mab’s cause of death.
But Yin Mengly told RFA that Ny Mab’s death “cannot end with a simple report from the Bavel district governor,” noting that authorities had failed to provide detailed evidence or witnesses that could confirm any history that might have led him to kill himself. Instead, he said, an independent commission should be established to determine the cause of death.
“We can’t determine this because the person in question has already died,” he said.
“This is why we are asking authorities to explain the case in detail so that there is no doubt about his cause of death. The death of a person is not like the death of a pig or a cow—human life is … more valuable than that of animals. So, the situation needs to be made clear.”
RFA was unable to reach Ny Mab’s relatives for comment Monday.
Deaths in quarantine
Ny Mab’s death is not the first time a Cambodian worker has died during quarantine for the coronavirus. In early January, a 52-year-old worker died during a 14-day quarantine in Tbong Khmum province. At the time, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith wrote on his Facebook page that the victim had a heart attack after falling and hitting his head on a toilet bowl, but authorities released little information about the circumstances surrounding the death.
As of Monday, Cambodia has recorded 2,752 cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus—since its latest outbreak began in February. While Cambodia has remained relatively unscathed by the virus, 21 people have died from COVID-19 since the country recorded its first deathon the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the virus a global pandemic last month.
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