Former Khmer Rouge chief Nuon Paet was pushed—literally—toward a life in prison on Wednesday after the Supreme Court upheld his conviction for the 1994 killing of three Western hostages.
Five Supreme Court judges took less than two hours to deliberate the ruling that blocked Nuon Paet’s last bid for freedom and ended his second appeal of his 1999 conviction.
“It’s an injustice,” Nuon Paet, 53, said as he was hustled from the courthouse by prison guards who were forced to wrestle through a barricade of photographers, reporters and television cameramen.
Meanwhile, the expected Appeals Court of Phnom Penh verdict in the case of former Khmer Rouge chief Chhouk Rin—who is also accused of killing the three hostages—was postponed until Friday to allow relatives of the slain men to attend Nuon Paet’s trial.
Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 27, were kidnapped during a train ambush in Kampot province, held hostage for three months and executed by their Khmer Rouge captors.
Thirteen Cambodians were also killed in the attack, but it was the murder of the three young backpackers that outraged the governments of Australia, Britain and France, which have continued to pursue the prosecutions of suspects.
“I want to tell you clearly, I never got involved in anything,” Nuon Paet said in his opening testimony to the court.
“I ask the court to find justice for me,” he said.
Nuon Paet said he was political commissar at the Phnom Voar rebel base when the train was ambushed.
The attack took place without his knowledge, he said. Later, he was not entrusted with the three backpackers because his Khmer Rouge superiors thought he had been too lenient with previous hostages, Nuon Paet said.
Rebel general Veth Vorn later received orders from Khmer Rouge regional commander Sam Bith to execute the three, Nuon Paet said.
Jean-Claude Braquet—the father of slain hostage Jean-Michel Braquet—said Nuon Paet, as a Khmer Rouge commander, bore responsibility for the crimes committed during the ambush and hostage-taking.
But he was not guilty of killing the three, he told the court.
“The raid on the train was well organized by Sam Bith, Chhouk Rin and Veth Vorn. After the train raid, the hostages were brought to Chhouk Rin’s village on Phnom Voar,” Braquet said.
“I believe Nuon Paet was not involved in the killing of the three hostages. He looked after them,” said Braquet.
Braquet’s apparent support for Nuon Paet’s innocence raised eyebrows in the court, and embassy officials threw sideways glances at their colleagues.
When the judges retired to make their ruling, Braquet said he believed Nuon Paet should not be the only person punished for the death of his son.
Wearing a brown checked shirt and navy blue pants, Nuon Paet took the recess time to proclaim his innocence to journalists and to discuss details about the hostages with Braquet.
“At that time I thought they would not kill [the hostages]. They were not clever enough to kill them,” Nuon Paet said.
“I really regret the killing of unarmed people who had no dispute with the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
In 1999, Nuon Paet was found guilty by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and imprisoned for life of kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, murder, damaging state property, robbery and membership in an illegal armed group. The Appeals Court upheld his conviction in 2000.
Announcing the judgment, Presiding Judge Khim Pon told the courtroom: “The Supreme Court has decided…to uphold the verdict of the Appeals Courts.”
“I want the police to bring Nuon Paet back to prison,” he said
Nuon Paet’s lawyer, Dy Borima, said he would complain to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cabinet of King Norodom Sihanouk.
The Australian and British embassies lauded the Supreme Court decision but noted that two other suspects still have to face justice.
“Today’s outcome is something we are very pleased with,” Australian Ambassador Louise Hand said. “We’ll continue to press the Cambodian government on the matter of justice in the two outstanding trials—Chhouk Rin and Sam Bith.”
Ian Felton, British Embassy first secretary, said Nuon Paet’s conviction reflected the decision of three Cambodian courts.
“We continue to want all of those responsible for the death of Mark Slater, and others, brought to justice,” Felton said.
Chhouk Rin, Nuon Paet and Sam Bith, regional commander for Khmer Rouge operations in Kampot province, are considered most responsible for the deaths of the three young tourists.
Each of them blames someone else for executing the hostages.
Sam Bith was arrested in May and is imprisoned in Phnom Penh awaiting trial. Chhouk Rin was acquitted in 2000 by the municipal court.
A dozen of Nuon Paet’s relatives and friends, several crying, watched as he was driven back to jail in a minibus.
“My father did not kill them,” his 14-year-old daughter, Vorn Phanna, said.