Trial of Alleged CFF Mastermind Begins in US

Opening arguments were to begin in California on Wednesday in the trial of alleged Cambodian Freedom Fighters mastermind Chhun Yasith, who faces multiple life sentences over charges he orchestrated an armed attack on the Cambodian government more than seven years ago.

Jury selection concluded Tuesday and federal prosecutors have opted not to seek the death penalty against Chhun Yasith, 51, who has pleaded not guilty, according to media reports.

The Interior Ministry said Wednesday that a delegation of 14 Cambodian police and civilian witnesses, including Interior Ministry Anti-Drug Department Director Moek Dara, are currently in Los Angeles to testify at the trial in a US district court.

“We are going there, first, to be witnesses to the event, and second, on behalf of the victim country,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak. “This was a very dangerous kind of activity, and we don’t want to find this kind of activity happening again in Cambodia.”

In street clashes spread over almost two hours, as many as 50 armed CFF members attacked a gas station, a traffic police truck as well as the Council of Ministers and Defense Ministry compounds in November 2000. The violence left about a dozen police officers injured and several CFF members dead.

Cambodian police have provided flags, weapons, ammunition and internal CFF documents as evidence for the trial, Khieu Sopheak said.

Cambodian authorities said at the time that the attackers had been quickly subdued and had not posed a serious threat.

Cambodian-American Chhun Yasith was arrested by US federal agents in June 2005 on charges of conspiring to kill, damage property and to use a weapon of mass destruction in a foreign country, which can carry the death penalty if anyone is killed.

Under the statute invoked in the indictment, weapons of mass de­struction can include rockets with more than 113 grams of propellant or projectile launchers with barrels more than 1.27 cm in diameter.

Prosecutors also believe Chhun Yasith held fundraisers to pay for the attacks in Cambodia, and from California ordered violent attacks in 1999 on a Phnom Penh bar and fuel depot, according to a copy of the indictment.

In the wake of the attacks, Cambodian police arrested nearly 40 alleged CFF members, many of whom were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. The Supreme Court in December rejected the final appeals of eight Battambang province men convicted in 2002 for their roles in the attacks.

“Serious procedural violations of Cambodian and international law occurred during these trials,” Naly Pilorge, director of the local rights group Licadho, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday, adding that Licadho hoped Chhun Yasith would be afforded due process rights in the US.

In a 2000 interview in Bangkok, Chhun Yasith said he would press on with his armed struggle against Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“I started this by myself two years ago so I can start over again,” he said.

Defense attorney Richard Callahan did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Chhun Yasith, an accountant, is also awaiting trial on charges that he caused Cambodian-Americans to file false income tax returns making them eligible for tax refunds. That trial is expected to start July 1, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

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