An Australian coroner yesterday exonerated the country’s authorities for the death of Australian tourist David Wilson, one of three foreign hostages executed by Khmer Rouge fighters in Kampot province in 1994.
David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet were kidnapped as rebels stormed a Sihanoukville-bound train in July of that year. The three men were finally murdered and buried in shallow graves by the guerrillas after two months of diplomatic wrangling.
In Melbourne yesterday, Iain West, the deputy coroner for the state of Victoria, finally delivered the verdict—which avoids laying any blame on the Australian government—of an investigation begun in 1998.
David Wilson’s family, and a former employee of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, have criticized their government’s actions in the case, with the father, Peter Wilson, calling the response to the kidnapping “insufficiently interventionist” in a letter to the inquest.
Criticisms have centered around the failure to prevent an assault by government forces on the Phnom Voar stronghold of Khmer Rouge General Nuon Paet, where the three men were being held. As many as 10,000 government troops surrounded the mountain during the foreigners’ detention, and a major offensive took place at about the same time as they were executed.
“It is likely that the development which precipitated the orders of General Paet to kill the hostages was the escalation in the military offensive by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces,” the verdict reads.
But it says the escalation was “inconsistent with promises [from the Cambodian government] to the contrary” and concludes that it was “appropriate” for the Australian officials to rely upon Cambodian government claims that would hold off attacking the mountain until the hostages’ safety was ensured.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was the finance minister at the time of the crisis, has alleged that $150,000 was released by the government to meet the rebels’ ransom demands, but never reached the captors. He has claimed elements in the Cambodian government sabotaged negotiations for the men’s release in order to highlight the threat of the Khmer Rouge to potential foreign donors, and in a bid to secure military aid to defeat the rebels.
“I stick to my version there was a plot to sacrifice the hostages for the Cambodian government to obtain Western military assistance,” Mr. Rainsy said in an email yesterday.
The inquest finding does not address such claims about the Cambodian government’s actions, but says the controversial Australian decision to leave the fate of its citizen to the Cambodian negotiators was appropriate in “exceptionally difficult circumstances.”
“Mr. Wilson was being held in a foreign country that was embroiled in a complex civil war, with shifting alliances and unstable social, economic and political dynamics,” Mr. West writes.
He also says there is “sound justification” for not paying ransoms to kidnappers, a stance that met with criticism after the deaths.
“Similarly, there is no basis for criticizing the decision to abstain from taking diplomatic measures involving threats to limit or cease provision of foreign aid as a means to manipulate or place pressure upon the conduct of another sovereign nation.”
There is no evidence such measures would have helped, the verdict says.
Mr. West’s verdict dismisses the evidence of Alastair Gaisford, who worked in the Australian Embassy at the time of the kidnapping and has since been publicly critical of his government’s handling of the crisis.
“I am not satisfied as to his reliability as a witness and historian,” Mr. West writes, recognizing claims by other witnesses who said Mr. Gaisford was not senior enough in the embassy to have fully understood events.
Mr. Gaisford reacted angrily to the verdict at the courthouse, calling it a “travesty of justice” and a “whitewash,” according to a report from the Australian Associated Press.
A British inquest in 1995 delivered a simple verdict of unlawful killing in Mark Slater’s death, and a French inquiry, commenced in 1994, is ongoing.
Gen. Paet, and Khmer Rouge commanders Chhouk Rin and the late Sam Bith were all convicted of the backpackers’ murders by Cambodian courts in the late 1990s and early 2000s.