Speculation Over Sam Bith Case Abounds

A figure from Cambodia’s horrific past, Sam Bith was less intimidating than his reputation last week when he appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court looking like nothing more than a tired man suffering from the common ailments of high blood pressure and old age.

That he appeared in a courtroom at all was due—many now speculate—to Western em­bassies pressing for his arrest and some measure of reconciliation for the brutal executions of three Western backpackers eight years ago.

Not lost on people like Youk Chhang, director of the Docu­mentation Center of Cambodia, is that Sam Bith will now have to answer for the deaths of three Westerners when he could likely be investigated for crimes of at least equal brutality, and certainly greater magnitude, as a regional Khmer Rouge leader.

“It would be so ironic if [Sam Bith] was tried for killing some Westerners before he was tried for killing millions of Cambo­dians,” Youk Chhang said.

The timing of his arrest has prompted observers to see a connection with the donors’ meeting next month, when Cam­bodia will go before the international community to ask for more funding to continue working on reforms, such as those in the judiciary.

A western diplomat went so far as to tell Agence France-Presse last week that the arrest signaled the government was prepared to finally commit to its long delayed trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders.

It’s debatable, though, if Sam Bith’s case will spur the government on to a wider search for justice for the Khmer Rouge, say observers in Phnom Penh.

The former Khmer Rouge commander was arrested at his jungle home and arraigned Thursday. Sam Bith’s family was unaware he was about to be arrested when he was called by local authorities, said Khim Ry, Sam Bith’s wife, on Sunday.

“My husband didn’t know he would be arrested,” said Khim Ry. “If he knew we would take medicine and some money for him.”

Sam Bith had just finished eating his breakfast porridge at 8 am Wednesday when the Ratanak Mondol district chief and one police officer arrived at his house and called him to see the provincial governor at the district office for a meeting, said Khim Ry.

“He thought he was being invited to join a party or a meeting by local authorities,” she said.

Sam Bith was surprised when he arrived at the police office because he saw only police cars and a pickup truck, according to the Ratanak Mondol police official.

“I am worried for his health because he didn’t have medicine for three days,” said his wife. “I gave him medicine and checked his blood pressure five times a day. Now I don’t know who takes care of him. I don’t think he is treated very well. If I knew he was going to Battambang, I would give him some money and medicines.”

His wife has been in Phnom Penh since Thursday. His only child, adopted daughter Pin Sarem, 36, stayed at his house in Battambang province.

Tuy Tong, Sam Bith’s neighbor, said Saturday that Sam Bith is a gentle and generous neighbor.

“How could he be a cruel man?” asked Tuy Tong. “I don’t believe this accusation.”

Sam Bith’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, said he sent a request for bail for his client to the municipal court Monday. The bail request was made due to Sam Bith’s fragile health, Kar Savuth said.

Investigating Judge Mong Mony Chakriya said he has no schedule for the trial yet.

“I do not yet plan to question him,” said the judge. “I have no schedule because I need to contact his lawyer first.”

The reaction to his arrest has generally been positive in that the government acted, even if it was two years after a warrant was first issued for his arrest.

Rights activists welcomed Sam Bith’s arrest merely because it showed the government was capable of prosecuting a high profile suspect.

Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said the timing of the arrest may set off a lot of questions about why it is happening now, but it’s never easy to say why things happen when they do in Cambodia.

“You always wonder in Cambodia,” she said. “You always wonder. The timing, why now. Nothing is ever straightforward.”

Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said the momentum for the arrest came primarily from the western backpackers’ families and the Australian, British and French embassies in Phnom Penh.

“I’m quite impressed that they say, ‘Don’t even dare to touch our citizens, wherever they are in the world.’ This shows the power of the citizens over the government in those countries,” she said.

Still, now that Sam Bith’s been arrested, the Cambodian courts should be congratulated, she said.

“Maybe it’s the sign, like the light at the end of the tunnel, of judiciary reform, that you cannot escape [prosecution],” she said.

Some observers said it’s likely Sam Bith could end up in a government-run Khmer Rouge tribunal. After he appears in a trial for crimes stemming from the train attack, he could face additional charges related to his position within the failed communist government.

But Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the arrest was likely not a precursor to a larger trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders.

“I don’t think the arrest of Sam Bith will convince the UN to come back to a trial,” he said. “The UN has made up its mind already. For me it would be a miracle for the UN to come back at this stage.”

“If it were a precursor to a larger trial it would have involved others, he said. “If only Sam Bith is being arrested, why not others…if it was related to the trial?”

And judicial reform is still a long way off, he said.

“The arrest of Sam Bith does nothing to judicial reform. By the arrest of this man it does not mean the judicial system has been transformed,” he said.

Sam Bith’s arrest comes just as Cambodia is preparing for the annual Consultative Group donor meeting, to be held in Phnom Penh June 19 to June 21. Donors countries and agencies pledged $615 million last year, about half of the national budget.

This year’s meeting is expected to be more difficult for Cambodia as they compete for the world’s aid dollars with Afghanistan and East Timor, in particular. Cambodia failed to come through on a key donor demand from last year’s meeting: an agreement on a UN-assisted tribunal of the Khmer Rouge.

Sam Bith’s arrest will go a long way to convincing donors Cambodia is serious about establishing the rule of law, said one observer.

“I feel that it is just a small signal that the government is serious about bringing culprits to justice,” said Lao Mong Hay, a longtime political observer. “We can see that this is not just a coincidence. At the [donor] meeting the agenda includes legal and judicial reform. The arrest just creates a climate conducive to attracting sympathy from the donors.”


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