Prince Norodom Ranariddh added his voice Monday to mounting accusations that Second Prime Minister Hun Sen delayed the arrest of former Khmer Rouge commander Nuon Paet for his own political gain.
Speaking to reporters on his return from Bangkok, the prince described the arrest as “a comedy, a very [tragic] comedy” contrived by Hun Sen to ensure an international endorsement of his election victory.
Nuon Paet was arrested Saturday morning in Phnom Penh on a warrant charging him with the 1994 murders of Briton Mark Slater, Australian David Wilson and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet.
The timing of the arrest has led many, including Prince Ranariddh, to speculate that Hun Sen intended it as a quid pro quo for a positive international assessment of the July 26 polls.
“Why do this now?” the prince inst
queried. “On the one hand, [Hun Sen] likes to please Australia, the United Kingdom and France, but why did Australia, the United Kingdom and France not act when Funcinpec was talking about Nuon Paet?”
The prince said his party had brought it to the government’s attention three or four months ago that Nuon Paet was living in the former Khmer Rouge enclave of Pailin, but that Hun Sen had chosen not to act on the information until it became politically expedient to do so.
“Nuon Paet was the third personality in Pailin,” said the prince, supporting the theory that he was being protected by Hun Sen’s allies in the autonomous zone. “[Hun Sen] knew this very well.”
The prince’s theory was also shared by the fathers of two of the victims, according to press and news service reports.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported Monday that David Wilson’s father, Peter, would refuse an invitation to Nuon Paet’s trial because he believed it to be a politically motivated sham.
Wilson, who thinks the Cambodian government sabotaged negotiations for his son’s release, said Nuon Paet’s arrest could have come anytime but was ordered for “political expediency.”
“The timing is amazing. I don’t believe it is a coincidence,” Wilson told the paper. “I wouldn’t want to go there and shake Hun Sen’s hand and give him kudos.”
In a Saturday meeting with the ambassadors of the United Kingdom, France and Australia, Hun Sen invited the families and their lawyers to attend the trial.
The father of the French victim, Jean-Michel Braquet, also criticized the arrest, saying the wrong man was detained.
Jean-Claude Braquet told Agence France-Presse in Paris that he did not believe Nuon Paet was guilty of ordering the murders. Instead, he named the rebel leader’s second-in-command, Chouk Rin, as the man responsible for his son’s death. “He was the one who attacked the train and who is now a military adviser to the Kingdom of Cambodia. He has immunity. Nothing can be done to him….Paet never killed a single hostage. All hostages whose names I’ve been given as having been held by Paet got out with their lives.”
Chouk Rin, who defected to the government in 1994, has admitted to leading the ambush on the Sihanoukville-bound train and seizing the three young Westerners. More than a dozen Cambodians were killed during the raid. But Chouk Rin denied being in command at the time of the Westerners’ murders, saying his commander, Nuon Paet, ordered the killings.
Chouk Rin received an amnesty on his defection in October 1994, only two weeks after the three are believed to have been murdered. At the time, diplomats from the victims’ home countries expressed anger at the government’s actions, saying Chouk Rin should also be brought to justice for his role in the crimes.
But ambassadors contacted Monday were unwilling to speculate on Chouk Rin’s involvement, saying they were just pleased that someone was finally brought to account for the crimes. “We are concentrating on the person for whom there is an arrest warrant,” said Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader.
British Ambassador George Edgar agreed that Nuon Paet should be the focus for the prosecution. “We are in no doubt that Nuon Paet should be on trial,” he said. “The degree of responsibility of others is not the issue. We have focused on Nuon Paet, but the emphasis is on those responsible for the killings.”
Edgar said that any pressure to hold others accountable would depend on what evidence emerges at the trial.
Police and judicial officials said Monday they were trying to transfer the case from the provincial court in Kampot, where the killings took place, to the municipal court in Phnom Penh, where Nuon Paet was arrested.
Justice Undersecretary of State Ly Vouch Leang said that papers authorizing the transfer would be signed Monday by Justice Minister Chem Snguon.
Municipal police are still preparing evidence to forward to the court, and were unsure Monday how long it would take to muster the case. Duong Sunchanta deputy chief of municipal penal police, said that with a detention warrant, Nuon Paet could be detained indefinitely.
Authorities would not comment Monday on whether Chouk Rin would appear as a witness in the case, as many have speculated. (Reporting by Catherine Philp, Freya Williams and Kimsan Chantara)
“I think he has to, doesn’t he?” said one legal expert familiar with the case. “After all, Chouk Rin is the one who has blamed Nuon Paet all along.”