Controversial Cambodian to Visit U.S.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
A U.S. visa application by Cambodia's police chief provoked a rancorous argument inside the Bush administration because of the official's alleged links to an act of terrorism and to trafficking in women. But the State Department decided to permit Hok Lundy to travel here this week for counterterrorism meetings with senior officials at the FBI, U.S. officials and others disclosed yesterday.
The decision was a policy reversal for the department, which last year told Lundy, a longtime aide to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, he would not get a visa to attend a U.S. police conference. John Miller, then head of the State Department's anti-trafficking office, said at the time that the threatened denial was based on "reports and allegations concerning his role in trafficking in persons."
But Lundy's visa approval is just the latest step in the restoration of his reputation in Washington, which U.S. officials ascribe to his support for the counterterrorism effort. Earlier this month, Lundy boasted of helping to arrest members of the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah, designated by the Bush administration as a terrorist organization. Two weeks ago, the FBI announced the opening of its first permanent office in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
"This is kind of a hold-your-nose deal," said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak for attribution. The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, the State Department's East Asia bureau, the Justice Department and the FBI pushed for the visa approval, while the State Department's human rights and anti-trafficking offices strongly urged the application's rejection, two U.S. officials said. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, cast the deciding vote.
Lundy is not the first foreign official implicated in human rights abuses to be welcomed by U.S. counterterrorism officials. Sudan's intelligence chief, Salah Abdala Gosh, visited Washington in 2005 as a guest of the CIA, despite his alleged links to war crimes in Darfur being investigated by the International Criminal Court. Although the administration has called him an ally in the counterterrorism fight, the United Nations last year put Gosh's name on a list of Sudanese officials who it said should be sanctioned for crimes by subordinates.
The decision to admit Lundy nonetheless provoked dismay and anger among human rights groups and others. "This is a guy who should be the target of U.S. law enforcement operations and not a partner," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "It sends a miserable message."
Pressed to explain the decision, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday: "I know that there are a lot of allegations, and I'm not trying to discount those allegations. The key here is that there's no -- in the review of the visa application, there was no legal bar to his being granted a visa." Essentially, he added, "it comes down to a policy judgment, and the policy judgment in this case was he was scheduled to attend a conference or a meeting with the FBI concerning counterterrorism issues."
"I wouldn't be surprised if there was a healthy discussion about this matter," McCormack said. An FBI spokesman declined to comment, saying he was under instructions to refer calls to the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia. McCormack said, in turn, that only the FBI could say why it is necessary to bring Lundy here. The Cambodian Embassy in Washington did not return phone calls. A woman who answered the phone at its United Nations mission said no one there was authorized to speak about Lundy or his visit.
Lundy's reputation initially suffered because of evidence -- detailed in a classified FBI report described by four U.S. officials -- linking his police forces to a March 1997 grenade attack on a Phnom Penh rally organized by a political opponent of Hun Sen. It killed more than 20 and wounded 150, including an American employed by the International Republican Institute. Lundy's response, on Hun Sen's order, was to arrest those who organized the otherwise peaceful rally.
His reputation took another hit in 2004, when a police unit conducted a major raid against a notorious Cambodian brothel and it was -- Miller said -- "reversed within hours," with the managers freed, dozens of women forcibly returned to the brothel and the head of an anti-trafficking group "roughed up." Some U.S. officials concluded from the event that Lundy was profiting from trafficking; he denies that.
"Do you think this just happens by accident?" asked Miller, U.S. ambassador-at-large on modern-day slavery from 2002 until last December. "All of this could only have happened with the approval of the chief of police. He's not the sort of person I would want to issue a visa to, based on what I know." A U.S. official said the brothel has since been closed, and that at least one local anti-trafficking group has endorsed Lundy's trip.
Stephen Morris, a Cambodian scholar and research fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said: "If this was done because somehow or other Cambodia was in the throes of a radical Islamic insurgency and you needed every hand on deck to fight it, you could make a case. But this is not the case. There is no jihadist threat emanating from Cambodia. All that's threatening the United States from Cambodia are drugs, which pass on their way to Western destinations under the supervision of high regime officials."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.