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Unveiled – Moral Hazard: How the United States Trained Cambodian Human Rights Abusers, Breaking U.S. Law

They were some of the most searing images of violence to emerge from the land crisis that swept Cambodia over the last decade. In scorching dry-season heat, the military shot villagers and torched their homes across this seaside province.

Witnesses said one eviction in April of 2007 at the village known as Spean Ches was particularly brutal. Security forces inflicted gunshot wounds at close range, used live fire to disperse crowds, and beat villagers, sometimes with batons that deliver electric shocks.

A joint force of about 150 members drawn from the police, the army, and the Royal Gendarmerie burned 80 houses and demolished another 26 homes.

“They used a type of fire gun to shoot flames to burn down the houses,” said Yeang Ren, 32.

Gendarmes arrested villagers, forced them to lie face down, and repeatedly kicked them in their heads, Ren said. “We felt great distress when we heard our houses being knocked down with an excavator.”

That month, a Cambodian navy unit burst into another community 15 miles away, beating one villager unconscious and burning down five houses to seize land that residents now say forms part of the campus of a local training school for the navy.

As property values rose over the last decade, Cambodia’s poorer rural and urban communities found themselves locked in land battles with the country’s oligarchy, which claimed rights to prime real estate. By 2014, more than half a million people had been affected by evictions, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion of Defense of Human Rights, a human rights organization known as LICADHO, for its acronym in French.

The scale and violence of evictions at Spean Ches quickly became emblematic of the crisis, drawing the attention of the U.S. Embassy in its 2007 annual report on human rights. And in 2014, the Spean Ches eviction helped form the basis of a private legal action alleging crimes against humanity that was brought before the International Criminal Court.

Yet as the crisis unfolded, Washington intensified its relations with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and police.

Congress, in 1997, had outlawed assistance to foreign security forces known to have committed gross violations of human rights. Yet diplomatic files published by WikiLeaks and compiled by the nonprofit investigative journalism group 100Reporters show that American officials overlooked such violations in vetting Cambodian police and military personnel for their eligibility to receive U.S.-funded training—in some cases apparently in violation of the law.

Two years after the violence at Spean Ches, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh recommended Colonel Seng Phok, a deputy commander in the Royal Gendarmerie, for U.S. training, the same man a human rights worker said was among the commanding officers during the eviction.

100Reporters also found that the United States provided training in investigative techniques to senior members of Cambodia’s National Police Commissariat who at the time were the subject of detailed murder and kidnapping allegations.

Those allegations were contained in court records and United Nations’ files that would have been easily accessible to the U.S. Embassy, which submitted their names to Washington for approval.

In a data-driven investigation carried out over more than a year using the “cablegate” cache of American diplomatic records, 100Reporters developed a navigable database of nearly 60,000 individuals from 129 countries selected for training by nearly 140 U.S. federal agencies.

Suspected narcotraffickers, killers, torturers, and foreign units involved in systematic extrajudicial killings were all found in the database. Many managed to pass through American vetting and receive training.

Ny Chakriya, chief monitor at the U.S.-funded Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), which began assisting the U.S. Embassy in screening Cambodian officials several years ago, said he was concerned by the failure to weed out questionable applicants. “When you see that a person who has violated human rights gets training, it seems he is given encouragement, and this is not a good thing,” he said. “It fuels him to violate human rights even more.”

At the time of the 2007 evictions in the seaside province, U.S. officials had already suspected that human rights vetting of local security forces was a problem. In January of that year, a team from the U.S. State Department Inspector General’s office visited the Phnom Penh Embassy and later reported the screening process had been “cursory and uneven.”

In practice, the Congressional vetting requirement, known as the Leahy law after its principal sponsor Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, has meant that background checks are required for all trainees. But the State Department report found the embassy kept no records of its local checks and used out-of-date guidance. Other agencies involved in the training didn’t understand the process and failed to submit the names of trainees for investigation, it said.

The State Department said it could not comment on individual cases. “We take our obligations under the Leahy vetting process seriously,” Julia Straker, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “Consistent with U.S. law and policy, the Department of State vets its assistance to foreign security forces, as well as certain Department of Defense security assistance programs.”

Cambodian officials would not discuss the human rights records of those trained by the United States. Attempts to speak with spokespersons for the Interior and Defense ministries were unsuccessful. Senior military officers referred questions to General Meas Sophea, the infantry commander. Through an assistant, Gen. Sophea declined to comment.

Lork Kheng, a member of the governing Cambodian People’s Party and of a National Assembly panel on human rights, defended her country’s security forces. “Generally speaking, I believe all commanders carry out their duties in compliance with the law,” she said in an interview.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, a civilian policymaking body, said that in Cambodia anyone complaining of abuse by the military could seek legal redress.

“We are a member of the United Nations and have our own rule of law,” he said. “We do have lawyers; we do have a court system. Whoever is abused can file to the court. That’s the way the rule of law is.”

This investigation is the first in a series examining how known human rights abusers slip through U.S. vetting of foreign candidates for security and law enforcement training, in violation of American law.

“Clearly Identified“

Boun Narith, a local monitor for LICADHO, identified one Cambodian officer he said was involved in forced evictions whose name later appeared in U.S. Embassy cables that granted preliminary clearance to attend training in counterterrorism and seaport security. 

Colonel Seng Phok was a deputy commander of the provincial sub-office of Cambodia’s Royal Gendarmerie and among the commanding officers Narith saw arriving at the Spean Ches village, which was largely destroyed by fire during the eviction, Narith said.

“There were three who were clearly identified,” Narith said. “Seng Phok, Pho Mongsan, and Vong Bunthorn,” all of whom are provincial gendarmerie officers. The Royal Gendarmerie is a military law enforcement body that often overlaps with the civilian police force.

Two years after the destruction of Spean Ches, the American Embassy informed Washington that it could find “no credible information” connecting Col. Phok to any gross violation of human rights and granted him preliminary approval to attend training in counterterrorism.

Washington’s final determination on training Col. Phok was not included in leaked cables. Attempts to seek comment from local gendarmerie officials were unsuccessful.

But of the hundreds of thousands of foreign personnel and units vetted every year by the U.S. State Department, only a small fraction is ever rejected during second-tier check in Washington, where a team of screeners may have only a few minutes to devote to each case.

When 100Reporters visited the provincial gendarmerie headquarters in March 2015, officers there said Col. Phok was traveling. Contact information for him was unavailable. Brigadier General Kheng Tito, a spokesman for the Royal Gendarmerie at the national level, said that he was not sufficiently familiar with the evictions to offer any comment. “I do not know these cases, how they happened from the beginning,” he said.

On the morning of the eviction, residents at first tried to keep the security forces out. Brawls and rock throwing broke out, according to former residents.

“They shot straight towards the people, low to the ground, to clear the way where it was crowded,” said Ren.

“They beat us while we were lying face down. They stomped on us, and they used their feet to step on our heads,” he said. “Then we were tied up with rope before being put on trucks. It was the gendarmerie uniforms.”

Nearly a decade after the eviction, the seized plot of land sat empty when 100Reporters visited last year. Of the more than 100 families originally at the eviction site, 75 have refused compensatory offers of plots in a nearby district, according to Ek Vithean, a man who was elected a community representative in 2010. They now live a few hundred yards from their former village in a roadside shanty encampment, perhaps 10 feet wide, comprised of lean-tos and shacks cobbled together with spare planks and corrugated roofing.

Ren, who said he had recently been laid off as a gardener at a beachfront bar, said he was one of seven men to spend a year in jail following the eviction.

Inside, as many as 30 people were sometimes confined to a space of just 260 square feet. Ren developed rashes and had difficulty bathing and sleeping.

Late dry season temperatures can approach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The food consisted of a broth of morning glories with rancid fish and rice. “Rotten. Stinky. Sometimes I did not see the fish, the meat. I saw only the bones,” he said. “Sometimes I felt I wanted to kill myself. I was dissuaded by other detainees.”

In April of 2007, the same month as the Spean Ches eviction, huts went up in flames elsewhere in Preah Sihanouk province. Troops burst into Kbal Hong, a small village abutting Ream Navy Base, Cambodia’s most important naval installation, which sits on a stretch of coast not quite 20 miles outside of town.

Nam Then, a former village resident and local land activist, read to visiting reporters from notes he had kept from the event. “On April 24, 2007 at 3 p.m., there were a mixture of soldiers from Battalions 8 and 9. There were about 60 armed forces with sticks, knives, axes, and guns led by Mr. Hong Morn and Mr. Hing Puth Dara,” he said.

The soldiers burned down five houses that day. (Some of the land where the burned houses once stood is now occupied by a school for the Royal Cambodian Navy, villagers said.) They allegedly beat unconscious a man named Samrith Lai, whom they mistakenly suspected of attempting to alert outsiders to the event. According to Then, Lai had in fact been taking a feverish child to get medical attention.

Then said he had seen a man at the scene giving orders, who he later learned was Rear Admiral Puth Dara, then a deputy commander of the navy base. “I saw him standing, pointing fingers back and forth,” said Then.

Leaked diplomatic records show that in 2009, just two years after the house burnings, the American Embassy approved Puth Dara, who then held the rank of commodore, to receive training from the U.S. Coast Guard in advanced maritime operations.

The base itself sits at the foot of Ream National Park, a 60-square-mile conservation area on the Gulf of Thailand. At a kind of garrison village next door, Cambodian naval personnel strutted proudly in crisp white uniforms. American sailors and marines are frequent guests and have regularly conducted joint exercises as part of “Cooperation, Afloat Readiness, and Training,” or CARAT, a program of the U.S. Pacific Fleet intended to build rapport with the navies of Southeast Asia. In 2009, navy personnel from Ream were selected to attend a basic “boarding officer” course in Charleston, South Carolina.

“The U.S. ships and sailors you see here demonstrate the American people’s commitment to sustaining a strong bilateral defense relationship with Cambodia,” the American Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Julie Chung, said in a speech at the base in 2014.

But the camaraderie shown to the Americans does not extend to Kbal Hong village. Residents described living with the persistent antagonism of navy personnel, which has continued at a slow burn in the years since the destruction of the houses.

“They won’t allow me to farm my land,” said a 53-year-old woman who said that her plot was next to a navy battalion and asked that her name not be used. “Yesterday there was a big argument. Two sailors came to stop me from clearing brush to work on my house.”

As in so many other villages in the dry season, a piebald path runs down the center of Kbal Hong, the grass worn away by foot and motorbike traffic. In the noonday heat, villagers take shelter together to eat, watch television, and talk.

In early 2007, navy personnel called village residents to a meeting that quickly turned hostile. Villagers complained that no road had been built to access the hillside relocation site known as O’Kampuchea, which the navy was offering to replace the land they would lose in an eviction.

According to Then, one of the navy men present brandished a knife and told the villagers that if they wanted a road to “use your mother’s ass” to bulldoze it.

Another, whom Then identified only as “Krouch,” later saw Then taking photographs and then cocked an AK-47 assault rifle, as if preparing to shoot Then, but was prevented from doing so by fellow sailors. A brawl ensued which Then said was captured in photographs by Sok Tith, another villager.

By April, the navy had decided on a forcible resolution. As 60 men were approaching the village along a road on April 24, they encountered Samrith Lai who says he was beaten unconscious and briefly detained along with Sok Tith.

Uniformed men entered the village and began tearing down fence posts and setting houses alight, according to Then. He said he managed to photograph the burning remains of the small house that had belonged to a villager named Leng Yeung, who he said has since gone to live near the local airport.

Attempts to speak to Rear Admiral Puth Dara, the naval base deputy commander, in person and by telephone were unsuccessful.

“Lots of Killings“

The 100Reporters database of training records shows that by 2008, the United States was seeking clearance to train hundreds of Cambodian police officers, notably those from the Criminal Investigation Department, which was then led by Mok Chito.Chito had worked his way to the upper levels of Cambodia’s National Police hierarchy from the Phnom Penh Municipal Police in the 1990s, a raucous time when the city’s fractious security forces were widely suspected of sustaining themselves through deadly extortion and drug rackets. A close associate of Chito’s during that time was Sok Khemarin, who later became director of the National Police criminal department.

In 2008, and again in 2009, leaked records show Khemarin was cleared by the American Embassy for training in Bangkok on chemical forensics and in financial investigations in Phnom Penh. Indeed, in November of 2008, Khemarin passed the second tier of vetting in Washington, clearing him to attend.

But municipal court records obtained by 100Reporters show that by 2008 both Chito and Khemarin were the subject of multiple torture and murder allegations. Human Rights Watch in 2012 published excerpted interviews in which a former government official and a former covert operative claimed Chito had overseen kidnappings and was “involved in lots of killings.”

Some allegations may have been made by rival members of the police who faced similar allegations of criminality or who had ulterior motives arising from internal power struggles. But their allegations were nevertheless detailed, serious, and open to the scrutiny of American officials.

Just five months before Khemarin was cleared by the embassy in 2008, Om Samkheng, the former head of misdemeanor cases in the Phnom Penh police, lodged a complaint from detention in Prey Sar prison, saying he had seen both Chito and Khemarin in the act of a murder committed 13 years earlier in Kandal province, just outside Phnom Penh. He wrote by hand:

When we were almost at the Boeng Snaor school, we heard gunshots, about two to three shots. Then, my friend and I stopped our motorcycle at a distance of about 50 meters. We immediately saw Mr. Mok Chito holding a gun in his hand and Sok Khemarin holding a gun in his hand—I don’t know which model—open fire on a person who was handcuffed, causing death, on a slope leading to the Boeng Snaor school.

Samkheng wrote that he was later arrested and tortured into confessing to committing a string of high-profile murders and attempted murders on the orders of Heng Pov, the now-disgraced former Phnom Penh police chief and longtime foe of Mok Chito. Pov is himself serving a jail sentence of nearly 100 years (for several of the very same crimes to which Samkheng claimed he was forced to blame Pov).

In a 2004 interview conducted outside Cambodia by a U.N. human rights officer, a copy of which was obtained by 100Reporters, a former Cambodian policeman connected to a rival political party said that in 1996 he had seen both Chito and Khemarin murder a man named Heng Ra in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.

“He was killed near Chba Ampov. Mok Chito was in the car when Ra was pushed out and shot by Sok Khemarin,” according to the statement, which was shown to 100Reporters by a former U.N. official on the condition that the author’s identity be protected.

Lieutenant General Mok Chito rubbished the allegations against himself and Sok Khemarin. He also said that both he and Khemarin had attended American training, specifically from the FBI. “I have attended several training courses in Phnom Penh and outside the country, but I can’t recall the dates,” he added that the courses covered money laundering, counterterrorism, human trafficking investigations, and human rights.

Chito said that the court had dropped the complaints against him, finding that Om Samkheng had been lying. “The allegations were baseless. It came from Heng Pov’s personal vendetta,” he said. “If the U.S. government believed all this, it would be crazy and silly.” He said Samkheng had died in prison but that he could not recall the nature of his illness. “Don’t believe him. He lied,” said Chito.

“A Slippery Slope“

The State Department and Defense Department believe they encourage other countries to take on the burdens of maintaining international order by building up peacekeeping forces from poorer nations, making other countries more compliant, improving intelligence sharing, and smoothing the passage of American forces through friendly territory when needed. 

Pentagon officials have sometimes chafed at restrictions under the Leahy law. Sen. Patrick Leahy has tussled with the State Department. The senator has accused State Department officials of ignoring a legal obligation to vet entire units, not merely individual candidates for training.

Mu Sochua, a lawmaker from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said she felt the American hope of reforming Cambodia’s security forces by engaging with them, almost without restriction, was “unrealistic.” “Sometimes they burn the whole village. There are pictures of that,” she said. “The United States cannot close its eyes to this and at the same time preach democracy, human rights.”

“I say it to each U.S. ambassador to Cambodia,” said Sochua, who is herself a U.S. citizen. “Training, hoping that these armed forces will be … neutralized without some form of conditions to aid is totally unrealistic.”

“The leverage of behind-closed-doors diplomacy is zero,” she said. “So you have to change the strategy.”

Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said in an interview that the United States had little choice but to be present and active in Southeast Asia: “The United States has to be tethered to a rising Asia, otherwise we will lose.”

But he added that security cooperation pursued at any price undermines American goals. “I would be doing as little as possible to cast in a good light people who we think have done things that are criminal,” he said. “If we become ultra-realists, it’s a slippery slope, so that we’re no longer defending the things we think we’re defending.”

Cronin said the “Cobra Gold” military exercises the U.S. conducts in neighboring Thailand, where a military junta has been in power since 2014, were “very problematic.” “We don’t want to be rewarding bad behavior, even with our allies.”

The Thai junta has been accused of detaining hundreds of people in secret, some of whom were allegedly tortured, and bringing political opponents to trial in military courts.

“Can we be part of the solution without dirtying ourselves, without forsaking our own values? Those are all fair questions,” said Cronin. “There are pluses and minuses in any policy implementation.” l