Operation’s Timing Raises Suspicions
In the Pailin area, former Khmer Rouge commander Nuon Paet was a familiar face.
One Pailin resident last week described how Nuon Paet was known to have two houses and protection by local authorities. Another resident described how he had been threatened by Nuon Paet after trying to help a journalist locate him.
“Nuon Paet came to see me and then he scolded me,” the man said.
So when Nuon Paet was arrested Saturday morning in Phnom Penh on a warrant accusing him with the 1994 murder of three Western tourists, many thought the timing was more than coincidental.
“He’s been at a known location for 18 months,” said one legal observer. “They make it sound like fabulous detective work, but they could have taken him at almost any time. I think it’s [Second Prime Minister Hun Sen] handing out gifts” to the international community.
The 52-year-old Nuon Paet, former commander of a division on Phnom Voar (Vine Mountain) in Kampot province, had been one of the most sought-after former KR leaders, for his alleged ordering of the murders of Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 26.
Adding to the intrigue about Nuon Paet’s arrest was that he arrived in the capital on a military helicopter, a military police source said.
The government maintains that it lured Nuon Paet to Phnom Penh with the promise of a business deal, then stopped his car near Pochentong Airport obstensibly to check for illegal weapons. “But actually it was a trap,” said National Police Director Hok Lundy.
Intrigue aside, the arrest—on the eve of a celebration for departing international observers—marked the coup de grace by Hun Sen on an election so far declared sufficiently credible.
The three Western tourists were seized from a train bound for Sihanoukville in late July 1994, in a Khmer Rouge attack that killed more than a dozen Cambodians.
For the safe return of the hostages, the Khmer Rouge first demanded money, then a halt to all foreign military aid to Phnom Penh. The three were believed to have been killed about two months after they were abducted, at the same time as a government offensive in the area.
Their bodies were found in November 1994 in shallow graves on Vine Mountain. The Australian government especially was critical of the way the government handled the situation.
Chouk Rin, Nuon Paet’s second-in-command who allegedly planned the train ambush, was cleared of all involvement after he joined the government a couple of years ago.
The British, French and Australian ambassadors were briefed by Hun Sen at his Takhmau residence for 45 minutes late Saturday morning. All three governments welcomed news of the arrest, but tried to steer away from a discussion of its timing.
“That’s not something we’re going into,” Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said Sunday. “For us, the main point is that the arrest has taken place.”
Just minutes before, Leader said: “Clearly, we welcome the news of the arrest. We’re looking forward to an expeditious trial.”
British Ambassador George Edgar also said the arrest was “very welcome news” and that “I don’t think it’s a good idea to speculate” about the timing.
French Ambassador Gildas le Lidac referred to a statement by the French Foreign Ministry in Paris that urged Nuon Paet to be “quickly brought to justice.”
Le Lidac bristled at the suggestion by a legal observer who said the arrest “smells like a deal” between Hun Sen and the international community, as in “we’ll support the elections if you give us something in return.”
“That’s absurd. Nonsense,” le Lidac said Sunday of the suggestion of a quid pro quo. “I’ve never heard of such a stupid thing. We’ve been pushing for the arrest for the past three years. There’s no connection at all [with the international acceptance of the elections].”
Edgar also said he didn’t think that the charge of a quid pro quo fits the facts. He noted that the international community still is awaiting the results of the election and appeals to the process.
But the father of the French backpacker who was taken hostage said he was suspicious of the timing.
“I’ve known where Nuon Paet was for three years,” Jean-Claude Braquet told Agence France-Presse. “They could have arrested him three years ago. Instead, they arrest him a week after the elections.” Braquet traveled to Cambodia in 1994 while his son still was being held hostage, then brought home his remains later.
Details remained sketchy about Saturday’s arrest.
Nuon Paet was described by government officials as having a business importing cars from Thailand.
Hok Lundy said on Bayon TV Saturday that businessmen helped the government lure Nuon Paet to Phnom Penh, and his car was then stopped for the fake illegal weapons check. He was arrested on a warrant from Kampot court.
Police sources said five bodyguards were with Nuon Paet at the time of his arrest by military policemen. A military police source, who requested not to be named, said that Nuon Paet arrived on a military helicopter.
On Bayon TV, Hun Sen said the arrest was made in accordance with the law and respect for human rights. He said he wanted a speedy trial. Nuon Paet was being held at T3 prison, after being transferred Saturday afternoon from PJ prison.
Hun Sen credited Hok Lundy and the police, and noted the difficulty of the case because Nuon Paet “hides himself and disguises himself in many places and many forms.”
In response to why it has taken so long to arrest Nuon Paet, Hun Sen used the tiger-in-the-lair analogy.
“Sometimes when we go into his lair, the tiger breaks our neck,” Hun Sen said. “But we also get a report that the tiger sometimes gets out of his lair to fetch food, so our police use that method to arrest him.”
(Additional reporting by Rachel Watson and Pin Sisovann)