Does the US know who it's dealing with in Cambodia?

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The local police not only failed to cooperate but actively tried to sabotage the FBI's investigation of Cambodia's worst peacetime atrocity.

Key evidence was doctored. Highly placed witnesses stormed out of interviews. Mischievous leaks to the media intensified threats to the FBI agents' safety. And according to the lead FBI investigator, who is now retired, Cambodian and US officials warned him that he was marked for assassination.

So much is written down in newly declassified FBI records from an investigation into the grenade attack on a peaceful opposition rally on March 30, 1997, which killed 16 children, men and women and wounded more than 100 others, including an American man. The FBI's disclosures were made this year under a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2007 by The Cambodia Daily, a local English-language newspaper.

No arrests were ever made. What evidence could be collected in the six weeks the FBI were actively investigating here pointed to forces loyal to the man who is now Cambodia's unchallenged prime minister, to the party and the people who now dominate Cambodia unopposed and with whom the U.S., and the FBI in particular, have since sought warm

Cambodia is a small but eager partner for a United States that seeks other countries to help shoulder the burden of international peacekeeping, engage in counterterrorism efforts and police the world's remoter regions to allow trade and commerce to occur in safety.

Cambodian intelligence sharing, for example, allowed the CIA in 2003 to detain Hambali, the suspected mastermind in the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 people, and one of 16 "high-value" detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay.

But, as the FBI records show, the broader security cooperation begun under the former administration of President George W. Bush with countries in the region — where China can compete for influence with the U.S. — may require a distasteful compromise in the promotion of human rights.

According to one U.S. Senate staffer who was briefed by the FBI in the late 1990s on the Cambodian grenade attack case, the U.S. has a tough decision to make in deciding whether to cooperate with the Cambodians, or any other known human rights abusers in Asia.

"Obviously we want to have accountability. We've been seeking that for more than a decade," the Senate staffer, who requested anonymity, said of the grenade attack.

"Do we then say that, 12 years later, it's inappropriate to have security cooperation with the government of Cambodia? It's a judgment call."

He also cautioned against assumptions that the FBI's evidence had reached an actionable threshold by the time the case was shut down. FBI briefers told Congress that physical evidence was not dispositive and that some witnesses had contradicted each other, he said.

"I don't think that it would be appropriate to withhold security cooperation with the government," he said, noting that while the U.S. remains "deeply concerned" about human rights here, the "basic policy is not to disengage with Cambodia."

According to FBI investigative reports and summaries, witnesses saw bodyguards for Hun Sen, Cambodia's current prime minister, protect and cooperate with the assailants, who then fled into a military compound used by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, and were overheard discussing the attack amongst themselves.

The rally that came under attack was a protest calling for judicial reform and was staged by a fledgling member of the opposition, the Khmer Nation Party, led by Sam Rainsy, who survived unharmed. The U.S. government determined that, since an American was injured, the FBI had jurisdiction to investigate. The bureau was also invited to provide assistance by police officials from a political party in the unstable governing coalition.

Retired FBI Special Agent Thomas Nicoletti, the case agent assigned to the investigation, said the evidence amassed against the CPP, which staged a coup d'etat three months after the attack, was "substantial" but was incomplete because the investigation was cut short due to threats to his safety and mounting political tensions.

Threats on his life were relayed to him by both Cambodian police and the U.S. ambassador, who spoke of "hit teams" operating in Phnom Penh, Nicoletti said. However, the then-U.S. ambassador, Kenneth Quinn, denied relaying such information.

In the wake of the attack, and Hun Sen's armed takeover several months later, which the U.S. Congressional Research Service last year described as an "unlawful seizure of power" accompanied by as many as 100 political murders, the U.S. Congress cut off bilateral aid to Cambodia's central government and passed resolutions condemning the grenade attack and coup.

Relations did not stay sour forever, however. Military aid began in 2005. In 2006, Cambodia's National Police Commissioner, the late Hok Lundy, was awarded an FBI medal for counterterrorism cooperation. Direct bilateral aid resumed in 2007, when Hok Lundy was invited to Washington. And an FBI legal attache office, which coordinates police cooperation, was personally inaugurated in Phnom Penh in 2008 by FBI Director Robert S Mueller III.

According to Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, when the FBI gave awards to Hok Lundy and to his deputy Net Savoeun, who replaced him as National Police Commissioner after his death last year, "it was clear that the U.S. government didn't really prioritize human rights in Cambodia anymore."

"All of these people should be under investigation for serious and violent crimes, but instead are being feted and collaborated with," said Adams.

Cambodian authorities were reluctant to discuss the grenade attack. National Police Lieutenant-General Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman and CPP liaison to the FBI during its investigation, said only that a suspect dubbed "Brazil" had disappeared, meaning the case had gone cold.

Adams said the apparent disconnect between U.S. interests in human rights and security cooperation has reached an intolerable level.

"This is the height of hypocrisy and cynicism and should end," he said.

"More important, this undercuts U.S. claims that promoting human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Cambodia are its main priorities. And it will alienate the many Cambodians who courageously continue to fight for rights and to move Cambodia from an authoritarian to a more democratic country."