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Cry for justice: Families seek closure a year after Kep building collapse

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
Rescuers carry a survivor found under the rubble of the collapsed building in Kep city last year. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Just past the first anniversary of the deadly Kep building collapse, the Kampot provincial court is due to announce the verdict on those charged over the tragedy which claimed 36 lives.

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The much-awaited verdict comes amid an effort to seek closure by the families of the deceased and survivors.

The families yesterday called on the court to provide “justice” for the loss of their loved ones as well as compensation from the building owners.

On January 4, a seven-storey building under construction collapsed in Kep province’s Kep city, killing the 36, including children, and injuring 23 others.

Following the incident, Prime Minister Hun Sen told his newly-formed legal team to provide legal support to the families of the victims.

Mr Hun Sen’s Volunteer Lawyers Group who are acting for the familes confirmed yesterday that Kampot provincial court is due to announce its verdict today during a public hearing.

Kep province does not have a court.

The building owner Ek Sarun and his wife Chhiv Sothy were charged by the Kampot Provincial Court with manslaughter under Articles 207 and 236 of the Criminal Code. However, they were released on $87,000 bail.

Asked why the court took more than a year to deliver the verdict, Kampot provincial court spokesman Mann Boret said yesterday that the timing depends on court procedures which deliberate the results of any investigation.

Ouk Oeun, 48, a survivor from Prey Veng province who lost four family members, including his wife in the Kep building collapse, said yesterday his family is still waiting for “justice”.

“We have been waiting for the verdict more than a year now,” he said. “I want justice for my wife who died during the incident.”

He said in the first few months after the incident he regularly went to Vietnam to treat a pinched nerve he suffered during the collapse, adding that he spent between $3,000 and $4,000 for treatment.

“Until now, I still suffer from old injuries that often leave me with a headache,” Oeun said.

He said so far his family has not received any compensation even though he had filed a claim against the building owners through his lawyers. He said his family is demanding $50,000 for each death and injury caused by the collapse.

Asked if his family wants the court to severely punish the building owners, Oeun said: “Let the court make the decision based on the law.”

The building owners could not be reached for comment but their lawyer Kong Sam Onn has claimed they should not have been charged. He pinned the blame for the collapse on a contractor who died during the incident.

However, Sam Onn has told Khmer Times that his client is willing to provide compensation to the families of those who perished or were injured.

He said his clients were not responsible because they had signed a contract handing over the construction project to the contractor.

A government working group which was assigned to investigate the deadly building collapse has blamed shoddy construction, including the use of poor quality pillars, for the incident.

Tep Thon, a secretary of state at the Land Management Ministry and head of the working group, told Khmer Times last year that poor quality cement was used to coat iron bars which supported the seven-storey building.

Joint forces search for survivors following the deadly building collapse in Kep city last year. KT/Chor Sokunthea

“The construction of the building was not done according to technical standards. For example, the southwestern pillars were too weak to support the building,” Thon said. “Based on technical standards, the [contractor] needed to use 16 iron bars but he used only eight iron bars to support each pillar.”

He also said the building’s construction started before approval was given by the provincial administration.

 

According to Kep provincial police, the contractor responsible for the building construction and his children also died in the collapse and a construction supervisor who had been detained after the collapse was allowed to return home after being cleared of any wrongdoing.

Provincial authorities also have said that construction of the building started five months before approval was given by provincial governor Ken Sitha on August 2.

Sok Kin, president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia who is observing the case closely, said yesterday that the court took too long to complete the investigation over the case.

“I hope the court will provide justice for the families who lost their loved ones and those who suffered injuries during the Kep building collapse,” he said. “They have been waiting for more than one year for real justice.”

“If the verdict does not give them justice, it will set a bad example and an opportunity for some investors to continue to shun their responsibility,” he added.

Kin said to avoid the risk of future building collapses, the authorities and relevant parties must do their best to inspect all construction sites. He said the relevant authorities should strictly inspect the safety and quality of all construction projects rather than wait for an accident to happen.

“They do not have to wait for an order from their superiors but they have to apply the existing laws in their respective roles,” he added. “They need to strengthen the implementation of the law, inspect and make sure of the quality of construction is up to standard and prioritise worker safety.”

Concern over construction safety in the country has been raised in the past few years after dozens of workers and family members were killed or badly hurt during a series of construction site accidents in Preah Sihanouk, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Kep provinces.

In a bid to improve safety standards at construction sites, the National Assembly in 2019 passed the Law on Construction, which aims to further regulate the Kingdom’s booming construction sector.

The Land Management Ministry last year also issued a directive banning the construction of all buildings without a permit in the Kingdom as well as prohibited construction workers from living within construction sites.

The ministry also instructed all relevant authorities, including provincial land management department officials, to take legal action against those who flout the laws.

 

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