Both Were Convinced Judge Would Convict
In his first letter from Phnom Voar where he was being held hostage by Khmer Rouge guerrillas six years ago, Jean-Michel Braquet told his parents that he was safe and that they shouldn’t worry. “We’ll be released within a week,” he wrote.
“At the time I didn’t think it would be a problem,” said Jean-Claude Braquet, who was in Phnom Penh last week, where he witnessed the acquittal of the man accused of leading the 1994 train raid that resulted in the kidnapping and execution of his son and two other Western backpackers. “Relations between France and Cambodia were good. So I thought it would be all right.”
But after a few weeks Jean-Claude started to hear contradictory reports from French officials and the media. “I started to realize there were lies being told, that they really didn’t know what was going on, that they were in a fog.”
When his son’s 27th birthday came and went on Aug 20, 1994, and still nothing had happened, he decided to come to Cambodia. He realized then he was helpless to save his son. “It took me two more days and then I understood—we didn’t have any control anymore.”
Several weeks later, his son was still being held hostage and government troops were preparing an offensive against Phnom Voar, where the hostages were being held.
Jean-Michel’s captors sent his father a videotape, a final message from his son. “He said, ‘Help us, Papa, help us. Or you’ll never see me again.’”
“I could only watch it once,” Braquet said. “I never want to see it again.”
A week ago today, former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin was acquitted of any involvement in the kidnapping of Braquet and his two companions, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and Australian David Wilson, 29. The court cited a 1994 law granting immunity to Khmer Rouge soldiers who defected to the government.
When the verdict was announced, neither Braquet nor David Wilson’s father Peter understood what was happening. Both said they had had no warning that the defense would use the immunity law. Both had been confident that Chhouk Rin would be convicted.
Wilson and Braquet said the acquittal of Chhouk Rin left them feeling helpless in the face of a system that had failed them from the outset.
After being pressured by the French, Australian and British embassies, the Cambodian government said it will appeal the verdict, a process which could take a year or more, if it happens at all.
“I lost my son six years ago,” Wilson said. “And this is the only satisfaction that we could get
…that these things wouldn’t occur again. But they are occurring, and they’re going to keep occurring in systems that allow powerful people to get away with murder.
“What gets me is they say there’s no government that’s responsible, no soldier is responsible—then who was responsible?”
When David Wilson left his home on the Australian coast about 50 km south of Melbourne to go backpacking in Southeast Asia, he and his father had been quarreling over what David should do with his life. Peter wanted David to settle down, get married, find a steady job. David wanted to travel.
Wilson’s jaw quivered and he absently flicked a tear out of the corner of his eye.
“We weren’t getting on too well with each other, I suppose.”
Since his son’s death, the 61-year-old retired engineer said that “everything has changed for me. I’m less sure of things. I feel more vulnerable, sometimes even driving a car.
“I think you have a natural faith in things…and then all of a sudden something like this happens and shatters your confidence in the simplest things.”
Braquet, a man in his late 50s, worked as a stunt man and comedian, but since the kidnapping he has poured most of his energy into trying to find the people responsible for his son’s death.
He said he seldom works anymore and seldom goes out. He wears a military-style khaki jacket, its pockets stuffed with photos and documents he said will one day help him convict the killers.
When asked about his family, he dropped his face into his hands. His mother died recently, her death, he explains, accelerated by her grief over her grandson.
“And my wife. My wife, her mind is here [in Cambodia]
….Nothing means anything to her any more.”
A judgment against Chhouk Rin wouldn’t have brought him peace, but it would at least have been a vindication of his efforts.
“I knew it would be hard, but I thought it would be possible.”
He said he has no faith in the Cambodian justice system, which he accused of conspiring with the government to protect powerful men. But he said he will persist with an appeal, “to show that I disagree. I cannot accept that Chhouk Rin has gone free.”
At that moment, Wilson said, he can’t think about what he will do in the future.
“Right now I just want to be home,” he said last week, the day he left for Australia. “I want to walk on the beach. I want to talk to my wife.”