The Coroners Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, confirmed in a statement obtained yesterday that it will reopen what is expected to be a highly controversial inquest into the murder of an Australian tourist who was taken hostage and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1994.
“Towards the end of last year [the coroner’s court] received some documentation from the Commonwealth [government] previously sought by former State Coroner Graeme Johnstone as part of the inquest into the death of David Wilson,” stated the notice released by the Coroners Court, adding that arrangements for resuming the inquest into Mr Wilson’s death in Cambodia will be made in the near future.
David Wilson was one of three Western backpackers kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge during an ambush on their Sihanoukville-bound train in 1994, which also resulted in the killing of more than 10 Cambodian passengers.
Mr Wilson, along with Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet and Briton Mark Slater, were at first held for ransom, but it was never revealed to what extent negotiations progressed between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge. Similarly, it has never been made clear whether military action against the Khmer Rouge captors marked the hostages for death.
At the time, the Australian, British and French embassies took a strict “no-negotiation” stance when it came to efforts to secure the release of Wilson, Slater and Braquet.
But, controversially, barely a month after the three were taken captive, Cambodian government forces began a military onslaught against the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Phnom Voar, where the hostages were being held. Many believed that the offensive against the mountain base, and the embassies’ inability to stop the attack, led the Khmer Rouge to kill their prisoners.
Just months earlier, an American woman had been taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge forces on Phnom Voar but was freed following negotiations conducted by the NGO for which she worked, and reportedly amid strong demands by the US embassy that military action not be taken against the captors.
In Australia, the coroner’s inquest into Mr Wilson’s death ran from 1998 to 2007, when it was adjourned upon the retirement of then-State Coroner Johnstone.
In the course of the coroner’s investigation, as well as in a separate investigation run by the Australian Parliament, an officer posted with the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh at the time of the hostage-taking offered potentially damning testimony about the conduct of efforts to have Mr Wilson freed.
“[Then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth] Evans was advised to use his direct personal connections with senior Cambodian officials to secure Wilson’s safe release,” the then-embassy official, Alastair Gaisford, said in coroner court transcripts, extracts from which were published last year on the Australian e-journal, On Line Opinion.
“[Evans] did not pick up the phone as we advised him to do so, to [tell them] ‘stop this military build up, stop now or we will cancel our aid or punish you in a diplomatic meaningful way,’” Mr Gaisford was quoted as saying in the transcript.
Reopening the inquest could prove damaging to the Australian government.
Although the 1997 parliamentary review of Australia’s role in the David Wilson case for the most part concluded the Australian government acted properly, the investigating committee admitted much remained unknown.
“To what extent the Australian government could have unilaterally done much more than it did is not clear,” the committee said then.
The files released to the Coroners Court, meanwhile, are reported by Australian media to contain detailed transcripts of the negotiations with Mr Wilson’s captors, as well as the confidential messages sent from consular officials in Phnom Penh to Australia.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs avoided commenting yesterday specifically on the hostage files that have been handed over, noting only that: “The Department has cooperated fully with the Coroner on the Coronial Inquest into the death of David Wilson since the inquest started in 1998.”
The spokesperson also wrote in an e-mail that: “Certain documents have been exempted from production under the FOI Act.” The official did not clarify whether the documents obtained by the coroner’s court were those that had previously been withheld for reasons of national security.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)