Looking worn and ill, former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith was ushered into Phnom Penh Municipal Court Thursday for arraignment on charges stemming from a deadly 1994 train ambush.
Sam Bith, who was captured Wednesday at his home in the northwest, did not speak to reporters before or after the hearing as he was ferried into the court by a team of heavily armed security officers.
His lawyer did not attend the arraignment, cutting short the plans of investigating judge Mong Mony Chakriya to question Sam Bith about his role in the attack that left some 13 Cambodians dead and three Western backpackers in the hands of Khmer Rouge rebels. The backpackers were later executed.
“I did not ask him any questions yet because his lawyer was absent,” Mong Mony Chakriya said. “We have postponed this to a later day.”
The judge, however, did formally charge Sam Bith with terrorism, conspiracy to murder, robbery, membership in an armed force and destruction of property—charges that were first filed in a warrant issued two years ago after Sam Bith skipped a court hearing.
After an hour at the court, Sam Bith was taken to Prey Sar prison.
Sam Bith’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, said Thursday that he could not attend the arraignment because he was busy.
“If the court calls me tomorrow I will do it,” Kar Savuth said. “I still protect him because he is my client. No one can ask him questions without his lawyer.”
Sam Bith’s appearance confirmed at least that his health has suffered. Wearing a plain olive green military uniform and a commando-style hat that hung from a string around his neck, he sat quietly as he waited in a court office before meeting with the judge.
He appeared to be breathing heavily, and kept his face turned away from cameras and bystanders who were peering into the room.
Sam Bith, 69, suffers from high blood pressure, guards told Agence France-Presse.
His arrest comes less than a month after newspaper reports said he was living freely in the northwest, despite government statements that authorities could not find the former Khmer Rouge commander, wanted for his alleged role in the train ambush.
His arrest was welcomed by western embassies of the backpackers who were killed in the ambush. Cambodian officials, meanwhile, downplayed concerns that Sam Bith’s arrest would bring retribution from former Khmer Rouge living in Cambodia.
“As a government official we have to take things very seriously,” said Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of defense. “I don’t think there is anything of great seriousness, but it is a concern. I think the national police have got the situation well in hand.”
Sam Bith is now the second highest ranking Khmer Rouge military official in detention. Former Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok is awaiting a genocide trial and has been imprisoned at the Military Prison in Phnom Penh for more than three years.