The life sentence verdict for former Khmer Rouge regional chief Sam Bith jolted residents of the one-time rebel stronghold of Phnom Voar, where the last remaining suspect in the 1994 backpacker slayings is battling to stay a free man, residents of the area said Tuesday.
News of Sam Bith’s punishment was picked up by transistor radios in Phnom Voar, the small mountain community outside Kep municipality where the bloody train attack and its tragic ending unfolded between July and September 1994.
“Yesterday, some villages and Chhouk Rin listened about Sam Bith’s sentence on Radio Free Asia and they were very surprised,” former Khmer Rouge doctor Ouch Nuon said by telephone from Phnom Voar.
“Now Chhouk Rin knows and is taking care of himself,” Ouch Nuon said.
As Khmer Rouge Regional Commander, Sam Bith was the highest ranking rebel found guilty of the train ambush that killed 13 Cambodians and led to the kidnapping and execution of Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 27.
Nuon Paet, the commander of the Phnom Voar base whose forces attacked the train and where the backpackers were taken as hostages, was sentenced in September to life in prison by the Supreme Court.
Chhouk Rin, the final Khmer Rouge suspect and alleged No 3 in the Phnom Voar chain of command when the bloody train attack was launched, was acquitted by Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 1999 then convicted by the Appeals Court of Phnom Penh this September.
But Chhouk Rin remains free, protected by his lawyer in Phnom Penh who is mounting a challenge to the Appeals Court decision sentencing him to a life in prison, and by hundreds of loyal supporters on Phnom Voar who claim he is innocent.
Chhouk Rin is keeping a low profile, concentrating on his farm, but has also been sick, the affects of an old battle wound to his left leg, Ouch Nuon said.
But to the dismay of his supporters, Chhouk Rin is still traveling to Kampot town, said Ouch Nuon who remembers the last time Chhouk Rin was taken to prison after being lured to the provincial capital in 1999. “It is better if Chhouk Rin stays in the jungle than in jail,” Ouch Nuon said.
A second former Khmer Rouge soldier who served under Sam Bith in Kampot province said news of the life sentence traveled quickly to former rebels in the area, particularly to former supporters in Koh Sla commune, Chhouk district where Sam Bith was once based.
While many former rebels are no longer interested in the fate of Nuon Paet and Sam Bith, support is still strong for Chhouk Rin in Phnom Voar, he said.
“Rin is taking care of himself and protecting himself from danger,” he said.
“He was worried a long time [before Sam Bith’s verdict]. But now the court is quiet and the people are quiet,” the former rebel said. Chhouk Rin will remain safe as long as he keeps acting within the law, he added.
Chhouk Rin’s lawyer, Puth Theavy, said Tuesday he has requested a re-trial at the Appeals Court, but has not received a reply. Twenty witnesses are willing to stand in defense of Chhouk Rin, Puth Theavy said, adding that the conviction of Sam Bith and Nuon Paet is proof that his client was not involved in the killing of the three foreigners.
As the court heard during Sam Bith’s trial, Pol Pot gave orders to Sam Bith, and as regional commander he gave orders to Nuon Paet to kill the backpackers, Puth Theavy said.
Two of the actual Khmer Rouge foot soldiers who shot the three Westerners to death at the mouth of shallow graves are still on Phnom Voar, he added.
“The killers who shot the three foreigners are still living deeply in the Phnom Voar area,” Puth Theavy said.
“Chhouk Rin is not afraid of the court,” he said. “There is no law to arrest Chhouk Rin if the court decision has not been made.”