Blaming the defendant’s poor health, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court abruptly halted the trial of former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith on Thursday, despite insistences from the 69-year-old that he be allowed to continue testimony about his role in the 1994 deaths of three Western backpackers.
Sam Bith stood for more than one hour in the stuffy courtroom claiming he was not party to the Khmer Rouge train ambush that killed 13 Cambodians and led to the kidnapping and eventual slayings of Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and French citizen Jean-Michel Braquet, 27.
Swaying on his feet, Sam Bith, who suffers from high blood pressure, was eventually given a chair and water. Shortly after he sat down Judge Sok Sethamony adjourned the proceedings until today.
As relatives massaged his chest and legs and a doctor checked his blood pressure, Sam Bith said he was not happy with the postponement, as a chair was all he required.
“It is very difficult for the witnesses to get here,” he said.
A dozen former comrades from Kampot province and “Brother No 2” Nuon Chea, the most senior surviving former Khmer Rouge leader and closest ally of Pol Pot, traveled from the former rebel stronghold of Pailin to make an unprecedented appearance at the courthouse to defend his former underling.
Wearing a green-striped shirt, black slacks, blue sneakers and thick-framed sunglasses, Nuon Chea was mobbed by frenzied journalists as he took short steps—assisted by two people—to his seat in the courtroom.
But despite his frail appearance, one of the men most likely to be brought before a Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal has retained a voice fitting of his feared reputation.
When asked by the presiding judge to identify himself, Brother No 2 bellowed, “Who me? Nuon Chea.”
He then boomed that he was 77 years-old, from Pailin, Battambang province.
Australian, British and French diplomats, the father of Jean-Michel Braquet and mother of Briton Mark Slater were also present in court.
“I’m just sorry about the day, that it had to end quickly,” Dorothy Slater said after Thursday’s proceedings. “I hope all goes well tomorrow,” she said.
Prosecuting Judge Yet Chakriya opened the short-lived proceedings by reading the charges of murder, kidnapping, robbery, terrorism and destroying public property leveled against Sam Bith.
Phnom Voar rebel base commander Nuon Paet was present in court as a defense witness. His subordinate, Chhouk Rin, already has been found guilty for their role in the backpacker slayings.
Chhouk Rin is currently challenging his Appeals Court verdict. During his court appearance, Sam Bith said he was appointed Khmer Rouge regional commander for Kampot province in 1981.
However, Sam Bith claimed he was in northwestern Cambodia three weeks before the train attack and had been relieved of his command by Nuon Chea.
“Pol Pot ordered me to fight only the enemy. We didn’t rob the people or attack the train,” Sam Bith told the judge.
Nuon Chea is expected to support Sam Bith’s claims when the trial resumes today.