Sam Bith, the former Khmer Rouge regional commander convicted of ordering a 1994 train ambush and the slaying of 13 Cambodians and three Western backpackers, died in Phnom Penh on Friday, relatives said.
On Dec 23, 2002, Sam Bith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for ordering his Khmer Rouge forces to attack the packed passenger train as it trundled through Kampot province on its way to Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh.
The 74-year-old, who received the rank of RCAF major general after defecting from the Khmer Rouge and integrating with government forces later in the 1990s, suffered a debilitating stroke in jail in 2004, which left him unable to speak and later bedridden at the municipal hospital in Phnom Penh. As his condition worsened, he was transferred to Calmette Hospital two weeks ago, relatives said.
“Everything is finished and no one can treat him badly any more,” Sam Bith’s widow, Khim Ry, said Sunday.
A funeral ceremony will be held for Sam Bith at his home today in Battambang province’s Ratanak Mondol district, she said.
RCAF commanders from Military Region 5 are organizing the ceremony, Khim Ry said, adding that her husband will be buried with full military honors.
Thun Saray, director of local rights group Adhoc, said Sunday that he regretted Sam Bith’s passing as he was potentially a valuable witness in the upcoming tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders.
“He could have provided more information about what happened in the years from 1975 to 1979,” he said.
During his 2002 trial, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was told that Pol Pot had given orders directly to Sam Bith instructing him to execute the foreign hostages from the train ambush, David Wilson from Australia, Mark Slater from Britain and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet.
The executions were carried out after weeks of tense negotiations to have the three men freed and as Cambodian government forces shelled and closed in on the Phnom Voar Khmer Rouge area where they were held captive.
Two other Khmer Rouge commanders based in Phnom Voar, Nuon Paet and Chhouk Rin, were also sentenced to life in prison for the train attack.
Former Khmer Rouge military commander Meas Muth, who is currently an adviser to the Ministry of Defense and some believe a possible candidate for prosecution by the tribunal, said Sunday that he was saddened by the death of Sam Bith.
“I pity him as we were resistance fighters together,” Meas Muth said.
Long Norin, a foreign ministry official during Democratic Kampuchea and currently living in Malai district, Banteay Meanchey province, said Sam Bith was famed for fighting a valiant rear-guard action as the Khmer Rouge retreated to the Thai border following the toppling of the regime in January 1979.
“I remember he struggled alongside Ta Mok for a long time and he was a good man,” Long Norin said.