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Cambodia marks 20 years since deadly grenade attack

Associated Press logo Associated Press 30/03/2017 By SOPHENG CHEANG, Associated Press
A layman prepares the portraits of victims during a Buddhist ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the March 30, 1997 attack, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 30, 2017. Hundreds of members of Cambodia's opposition party held a remembrance Thursday marking the 20th anniversary of a grenade attack that killed 16 people.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith) © The Associated Press A layman prepares the portraits of victims during a Buddhist ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the March 30, 1997 attack, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 30, 2017. Hundreds of members of Cambodia's opposition party held a remembrance Thursday marking the 20th anniversary of a grenade attack that killed 16 people.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Hundreds of members of Cambodia's opposition party held a ceremony Thursday marking the 20th anniversary of a grenade attack in the nation's capital that killed 16 people.

The 1997 attack was widely seen as an assassination attempt on Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister, political leader and fierce critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sam Rainsy escaped with minor injuries in the attack, in which four grenades were thrown. But others at the anti-corruption protest where the attack occurred died and more than 100 people were wounded, some seriously.

Speaking by video link from Paris, Sam Rainsy said the victims are still waiting for justice. He has lived in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid legal problems he says were instigated by the government.

Hun Sen's government in the past year has put increasing legal pressure on its critics and political opponents, keeping them tied up in court, sending them fleeing into exile, and sometimes jailing them. Legal threats forced Sam Rainsy to resign this year from the Cambodia National Rescue Party that he had led. Nationwide local elections will be held in June, and a general election next year.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court added to Sam Rainsy's legal problems on Thursday when it sentenced him in absentia to 20 months in jail for a comment posted on his Facebook page last year suggesting the authorities were involved in the July killing of a popular political analyst.

Court spokesman Ly Sophana said Sam Rainsy was found guilty of two charges, criminal defamation and inciting public chaos. Sam Rainsy's defense lawyer, Sam Sokong, said he would appeal the ruling.

Many people suspected the government of being behind the 1997 attack. Cambodia at that time was plagued by political violence, virtually all directed at Hun Sen's opponents.

"On the day of the grenade attack, Prime Minister Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, Brigade 70, was, for the first time, deployed at a demonstration," the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a 2009 report on the attack. "The elite military unit, in full riot gear, not only failed to prevent the attack, but was seen by numerous witnesses opening up its lines to allow the grenade-throwers to escape and threatening to shoot people trying to pursue the attackers."

Ly Nary, whose son was killed, said she is still waiting for justice.

"I am appealing to the government, please prevent this kind of thing by not allowing the killing of protesters like this to happen again," she said.

In his comments by video link, Sam Rainsy said, "we are still urging an independent court to find the attackers and their masterminds to face justice."

His successor as head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, struck a more conciliatory note at the ceremony by appealing for an end to all people's suffering and urging everyone, including politicians, to treat each other with respect.

"The suffering has to be put to an end with justice," Kem Sokha said.

In Washington, U.S. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement saying the failure to hold the attack's perpetrators accountable boded ill for Cambodia's political process.

"Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the country with impunity for over three decades. Throughout his rule, Hun Sen has resorted to any and all means to suppress the legitimate political opposition, harass civil society, restrain the media environment, and deny the democratic aspirations of the Cambodian people," McCain said. "I fear that within this environment there is little likelihood of a free and open electoral process in the elections scheduled for this year and next. "

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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