The Phnom Penh Municipal Court tried five former Khmer Rouge soldiers on Friday on charges related to the 1996 kidnapping and murder of British deminer Christopher Howes and his Cambodian interpreter.
Following the daylong hearing, presiding Judge Iv Kimsry told the courtroom that verdicts would be announced on Oct 14.
An employee of the UK organization Mines Advisory Group, a 36-year-old Howes and his Cambodian interpreter Huon Huot were kidnapped in Siem Reap province and later executed in Anlong Veng following their abduction by Khmer Rouge forces on March 16, 1996. Military police arrested the five suspects earlier this year.
Four of the men—Khim Ngon, 58, Loch Mao, 56, Puth Lim, 57, Cheam Chet, 33, Sin Dorn, 52—were tried Friday on three different charges: kidnapping, murder and of breaking the 1994 law outlawing the Khmer Rouge. The fifth suspect, Cheam Chet, was only charged with murder, as he had already been previously convicted and later pardoned of being a member of the Khmer rouge military.
Cheam Chet denied being involved in the killings, claiming that he was merely a villager forced by about 20 Khmer Rouge soldiers to guide them to the deminers.
“I didn’t go willingly, they forced me to go,” Cheam Chet said, adding that the Khmer Rouge had taken Howes and Huon Huot hostage but released the other deminers after burning two MAG vehicles.
The four other suspects also denied any direct involvement in the killings, adding that they just participated in the abduction at the order of former Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok, who died in 2006.
Loch Mao told the court that a Khmer Rouge officer named Rim had been the one to kill Howes by a single gunshot to the head in Anlong Veng.
Rim is believed to have been killed by a mine in 2004, according to a British police investigation.
The most senior of the five suspects, Khim Ngon was promoted to be a brigadier general and a deputy chief of staff at the RCAF infantry after defecting from the Khmer Rouge. He told the court that Ta Mok had ordered him to pick up Howes from the Khmer Rouge troops in Siem Reap and bring him to Anlong Veng.
Khim Ngon asked the court for leniency, pointing to his age and the promise of reconciliation offered those who defected from the Khmer Rouge.
“I am really 59 by the end of this year,” he said. “I collected the forces integrating into the government, believing that I could rebuild myself in the society and would be safe with wife and children,” he added.
The three-person defense team representing the five men challenged the court’s decision to charge their clients under the 1994 law outlawing the Khmer Rouge.
“What about Ieng Sary who brought in 4,000 troops in 1998? Will he be charged?” said attorney Lim Eng Ratanak, who defended Puth Lim. “It is against the legal procedure. If they charge, it has to be tens of thousands of people.”
Speaking with a reporter during a recess at the trial, MAG chief executive Lou McGrath said that Howes could have escaped his Khmer Rouge abductors but chose to stay with his team despite the risk.
“Chris volunteered to work in Cambodia to train how to do safe clearance in Cambodia,” McGrath said. “He was committed to the team, he would not leave the team when they were abducted,” he said.
“It’s been a long time, but I think that’s better than never,” he said of Friday’s trial, adding that Huon Huot’s wife had faced difficulty following her husband’s death.