The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a life sentence against Cambodian-American Chhun Yasith, leader of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), an anti-Hun Sen rebel group, for his bungled 2000 attack on Phnom Penh that left at least seven CFF members dead.
A California district court convicted the former tax accountant in 2008 of conspiring to overthrow the Cambodian government and sentenced him to life without parole.
From his offices in Long Beach, California, home to America’s largest Cambodian community, Chhun Yasith founded the CFF in the late 1990s and is alleged to have set up a base of operations in Thailand to plan his failed 2000 attack.
In his appeal, Chhun Yasith argued that he had no intent to kill and planned the attack to cause minimal casualties.
In its decision, the court rejected the claims, citing a letter by Chhun Yasith urging his group to send its enemies to “hell in the near future” and military plans giving their fighters the option to “shoot to kill on the spot.”
As such, Judge Carlos Bea writes, “there was sufficient evidence in the record to allow the jury to conclude that Chhun had the intent to murder his enemies when he conspired to overthrow Hun Sen. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Chhun’s motion for judgment of acquittal and new trial.”
Based on the attack’s death toll, nearly all of whom were CFF fighters, the court also rejected his request for a lighter sentence.
“The court rejected Chhun’s pleas for leniency because he caused the deaths of innocent people,” Judge Bea writes. “These reasoned justifications for sentencing Chhun to life in prison show that the sentence was not substantively unreasonable.”
In a 2012 e-book about the affair, author Adam Piore, a former Cambodia Daily reporter, reveals that Chhun Yasith was convinced that the American government would approve of his efforts to topple Mr. Hun Sen, noting some of the enemies the long-serving prime minister had in Congress.
Besides Chhun Yasith, some former CFF members are serving life sentences for their roles in the ill-planned and haphazard attack in Phnom Penh.