Former Khmer Rouge military commander Sam Bith was arrested at his Battambang province home early Wednesday morning and flown to Phnom Penh by helicopter for questioning about his role in a 1994 train ambush that killed some 16 people, including three western backpackers who were taken hostage and later executed, officials said.
Sam Bith was told by officials that he had been implicated in the ambush by Nuon Paet, a former soldier who had been under Sam Bith’s command, according to Interior Ministry official Sok Phal. Sam Bith did not put up a struggle, and quietly accompanied officials out of his home, located on the road between Battambang and Pailin, Sok Phal said.
The arrest comes less than a month after newspaper reports revealed he was living freely at the Battambang house, despite a warrant for murder and kidnapping that was issued more than two years ago.
Sam Bith, who once reported to Pol Pot as the military commander of the Khmer Rouge’s southeastern zone near Kampot province, is expected to appear in Phnom Penh Municipal Court today.
“I expect that he will confess what he has done,” said Mong Mony Chakriya, investigating judge of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
News of the arrest was welcomed by western diplomats who have regularly urged the government to pursue its investigation of the bloody train massacre, an event that garnered international press as the hostages—Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Jean-Michel Braquet of France—were held for nearly two months and then slain on Phnom Voar in Kampot after a ransom deal was botched.
“We’re delighted by the report that Sam Bith has been detained,” British Ambassador Stephen Bridges said. “We hope that the judicial process will take its due course and that all those responsible for the deaths of British citizens between 1994 and 1996 will be brought to justice.”
Australian Ambassador Louise Hand said the Wilson family was immediately notified of Sam Bith’s arrest.
“We strongly welcome this outcome,” Hand said. “We see it as a significant and positive development in a long running follow-up to this tragic case.”
An official at the French Embassy said the embassy has regularly asked Cambodian authorities to search for the people responsible for the train ambush and prosecute them.
Sam Bith was being held at the Ministry of Interior Wednesday. He is now the second highest ranking former Khmer Rouge official in custody.
Former Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok has been awaiting a genocide trial for more than three years while detained in the Phnom Penh Military Prison.
Sam Bith defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1996 and was made a two-star RCAF general, advising the Cambodian government on military matters and attending meetings in Phnom Penh while frequently traveling between the capital and his home in the northwest.
He testified in the June 1999 criminal trial that led to a conviction and life sentence for Nuon Paet for the train ambush and backpackers’ deaths. Nuon Paet wrote letters to each of the backpacker’s families alleging that he was acting on Sam Bith’s orders.
The only other man to face criminal charges for the train attack, former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin, was cleared of accusations that he led the ambush when a court ruled in July 2000 that an amnesty granted to defecting Khmer Rouge meant he could not be prosecuted for the attack. Chhouk Rin defected to the government 10 weeks after the attack.
Government investigators at one time said it was possible that Sam Bith was not involved in the train attack, saying in mid-2000 that they had received evidence that Sam Bith was not present when the three backpackers were killed. Kar Savuth, Sam Bith’s lawyer at the time, said he knows six people who would testify on Sam Bith’s behalf.
Sam Bith has had a warrant issued for his arrest since he skipped a Jan 26, 2000, court hearing stemming from the government’s investigation of the train attack.
He was suspended from his RCAF post in June 2001.