CFF Leader Seized in US For 2000 Plot

US authorities on Wednesday arrested Chhun Yasith, the leader of the outlawed Cambodian Free­dom Fighters, at his Cali­fornia home for allegedly planning the CFF attack in Phnom Penh in 2000, the US Embassy said Thurs­day.

A federal grand jury in Los An­geles indicted Chhun Yasith for conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, conspiracy to damage or de­stroy property in a foreign country and engaging in a military expedition against a friendly country, the Embassy said in a statement.

The 48-year-old “was taken into custody without incident [Wed­nes­day] morning at his residence in Long Beach,” the Em­bas­sy said.

He faces life in prison without pa­role for each of the charges.

Cambodian officials welcomed the arrest on Thursday.

“Please do whatever to punish him in the most serious way to stop the next generation [of Cam­bodians] following a bad model,” Prime Minister Hun Sen’s adviser, Om Yentieng, said. “We would like to welcome this arrest, although it has been quite a long time.”

Chhun Yasith and his wife, Sras Pech, also face charges of operating a fraudulent tax-preparation business in Long Beach, the Em­bassy said. Sras Pech was also arrested Wednesday.

The couple is accused of persuading Cambodians on welfare, or government aid, to file bogus tax returns and obtain a refund from the government.

Chhun Yasith faces up to 29 years in prison in relation to the tax case, the US Embassy said.

A US Federal Bureau of Inves­tigation official based in Bangkok arrived in Phnom Penh several days prior to the arrest, and Cam­bodian officials provided him with additional evidence on Chhun Yasith, Sok Phal, deputy national po­lice commissioner said.

“We requested US authorities to arrest Chhun Yasith and his group. The US respects the law,” Sok Phal said.

The arrest “[is] good for the relationship between [the US and Cambodia],” Sok Phal added.

During the November 2000 CFF attack on the capital, some 60 lightly armed and apparently drunken men attacked the heavily defended Ministry of Defense and other government installations.

During hours of gun battles and grenade explosions, several CFF rebels were killed and about a dozen police officers injured.

Information Minister Khieu Kan­harith said he hoped the ar­rest will stop “fear in people’s minds” about the CFF. “The fight against terrorism is not based only in the US,” he said. “We need to be united.”

Although the US State Depart­ment has listed the CFF as a terrorist group, not everyone takes them at face value.

In a March 2004 article, The New York Times reported that the CFF “does not seem to pose a very serious threat to the government of Cambodia,” adding: “Its real effect, in fact, may be to hurt nonviolent opponents of Hun Sen.”

After the attack, Hun Sen jailed hundreds of critics with no apparent link to the CFF.

Chhun Yasith has stated in the past that he has raised money for the US Republican Party and en­joyed support from some of their congressmen.

But as recently as April, Chhun Yasith was alluding to future attacks in Cambodia. “We will fight soon for the territory, justice and democracy for our people,” Chhun Yasith said in a statement re­ceived April 28. “Vietnamese stooges are coming to their end.”

Tith Sovanna, a former adviser to Chhun Yasith whose son was jailed for taking part in the 2000 attack, welcomed the news of the arrest Thursday.

“He is not a responsible person, and he brought disaster on my family and made me lose everything,” she said.

Before he ordered the attack on Phnom Penh, Tith Sovanna said, Chhun Yasith called her to meet with him in Thailand, where he announced his plan for the attack at a meeting with other CFF officials.

“When I heard them plan it, I in­structed them not to do it, or more people will be killed and our members will be arrested, but Chhun Yasith did not listen to me,” she said.

One foreign diplomat said Thurs­­day that the US may have timed the arrest to thank Cambo­dia for ratifying on May 18 a bilateral agreement with the US, promising not to extradite US citizens for prosecution by the Inter­national Criminal Court.

The arrest may also help en­courage Cambodia to pass a new law on terrorism, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

“[If] you want them to pass a terrorism law, if you want them to cooperate on that, you have to take their own terrorist considerations into account,” the diplomat said.

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)


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