Chhouk Rin, the former Khmer Rouge commander believed to have led the train raid that resulted in the deaths of three Western backpackers in 1994, was arrested Monday, government and diplomatic officials confirmed Tuesday.
The long-awaited arrest comes seven months after Chhouk Rin testified at the trial of Nuon Paet, another ex-guerrilla commander who was sentenced to life in prison for ordering the bloody train ambush in Kampot province, and then holding three tourists hostage for more than two months before executing them.
“He has already been brought to Phnom Penh and sent to prison,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen before a CPP-Funcinpec meeting at the Hotel Inter-Continental (see page 10). “Chhouk Rin has been arrested because he has been identified by the prosecutor as implicated in the crime.”
Authorities have also linked Sam Bith, an RCAF two-star general who defected in 1996, to the 1994 slayings. But officials were unclear Tuesday if the former Khmer Rouge southwestern zone commander was being actively sought.
Chhouk Rin was taken into custody at his Phnom Voar base in Kep municipality, according to Sao Sokha, national military police commander. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Mong Mony Chacriya issued the arrest warrant based on charges of robbery and murder. The suspect is now being detained in Phnom Penh’s T3 prison and could face trial in several months, officials said.
“There was no fighting or reaction during Chhouk Rin’s arrest,” said Sao Sokha, who spent Tuesday evening at a party at the military police compound with Defense co-Minister Tea Banh and dozens of soldiers. “He accepted his arrest calmly.”
Chhouk Rin was charged in July for his involvement in the killings of Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 26, and 27-year-old Jean-Michel Braquet of France. Additionally, at least 13 Cambodian passengers were killed as a result of the train ambush.
The fate of the three Western hostages abducted in late July 1994 was not yet publicly known when Chhouk Rin switched loyalties and joined the
government a mere 10 weeks after the attack. Cambodian military officials at the time maintained Chhouk Rin had split with the rebels detaining the hostages, and that he intended to help RCAF gain the freedom of the captives. He became a colonel in the government army.
The court has also summoned Sam Bith for questioning, Mong Mony Chacriya told Agence France-Presse. The general is facing charges of conspiring to kidnap, murder and destroy public property. Like Chhouk Rin, he testified against Nuon Paet in June.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of Defense, said authorities have been discussing Chhouk Rin’s arrest since Nuon Paet’s trial. “We wanted Chhouk Rin to cooperate [with the trial],” the prince said, explaining the delay.
The father of the French victim, who has criticized the government’s initial handling of the kidnapping and trial, welcomed news of the arrest.
“It is a very good surprise, and I am happy that Chhouk Rin will finally be judged because I was beginning to get very angry,” Jean-Claude Braquet told AFP by telephone from his home in France. “Finally, perhaps, we may see the end of this affair.”
After Nuon Paet was convicted, Braquet had called him a “scapegoat,” while human rights groups said the verdict for Nuon Paet seemed pre-written.
Prime Minister Hun Sen informed the ambassadors of France, Britain and Australia of Chhouk Rin’s arrest Monday night.
“We are pleased the case is being followed up with the arrest of Chhouk Rin,” British Ambassador George Edgar said Tuesday.
Patrice Bonnal, first secretary at the French Embassy, said his government is happy about the arrest, but it does not yet have a position on what will happen next. “We expect it will be done correctly as we have asked previously,” he said.
As for Sam Bith, Prince Sirirath said it may be difficult to take action against him. Diplomats said they fear he will flee or that his status of general may stave off charges against him.
“Everyone was saying he was involved but we have to make sure,” Prince Sirirath said. “This is a very sensitive case so we still have to keep some things quiet.”
The gruesome killing of the backpackers made international headlines and contributed to Cambodia’s image as a dangerous place.
The tourists were killed after a ransom payment to secure their release was botched. Nuon Paet’s Phnom Voar base also came under government bombardment during the ordeal.
Thun Saray, president of the local human rights group Adhoc, said Chhouk Rin’s arrest may be a reflection of the government’s efforts to give more credibility to its legal system in light of discussions on how to try former Khmer Rouge leaders.
“But we also need to arrest top leaders of the Khmer Rouge who defected and are now free,” Thun Saray said. “It’s not fair. I know Chhouk Rin and Nuon Paet committed crimes against foreigners, but the free leaders of the Khmer Rouge killed many [Cambodian] people.”
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)