A panel of three appeals court judges postponed its decision in the Nuon Paet case Wednesday, citing legal complications and the ongoing Festival of the Dead holiday as reasons for the delay.
Nuon Paet, a former Khmer Rouge commander, is appealing the municipal court’s June 1999 decision that sentenced him to life in prison for his involvement in the 1994 train ambush that led to the deaths of three Western backpackers.
Appeals Court Judge Sam Rith Sophal said the hearing will resume at 8 am on Oct 4, when a verdict is scheduled to be announced. “This case is very complicated, so the panel of judges need time to discuss the case,” he said.
Lawyers for Nuon Paet argued that the six charges against him should be dropped because their client was not involved in the train attack and was not present when the foreigners were executed.
“The trial at the municipal court was unfair,” Nuon Paet told the court. “I was responsible for the administration, not the military. I did not order anyone to attack the train. I want the court to find justice for me.”
Prosecutor Nhuong Thol said he would drop the charge of illegally forming armed forces, but the five other charges should stand. Along with the armed forces charge, Nuon Paet was convicted last year of terrorism, robbery, destruction of public property, illegally detaining people and conspiracy to murder.
The families of the Western victims, who didn’t come to Cambodia for the appeal hearing, said through representatives that all of the charges should stick.
Jean-Michel Braquet of France, Briton Marc Slater and Australian David Wilson, all in their late 20s, were held for more than two months at the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Phnom Voar before they were murdered. Their families asked the court to award them $50,000 each in compensation.
“According to witnesses, Nuon Paet ordered his people to join the train attack,” said Yim Sary, a lawyer for the Braquets. “He didn’t go to the train, but he gave the order.”
Nuon Paet said he alone is being blamed for the Kampot province train attack because he did not defect to the government.
Questioning during Wednesday’s proceedings focused on Nuon Paet’s role in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, and who received the orders to attack the train and kill the tourists. The judges and the prosecutor asked Nuon Paet and his witnesses to explain why some said Nuon Paet was in charge of Phnom Voar.
Four witnesses testifying for Nuon Paet said Sam Bith gave the orders to Vith Vorn, a former Khmer Rouge commander who was killed after the kidnapping. The witnesses corroborated Nuon Paet’s claims that he was responsible only for administration in Phnom Voar, and Vith Vorn was in charge of the military.
“I got a message from No 37 [Sam Bith] to give to No 27 [Vith Vorn] to kill the backpackers because the situation was getting bad,” said Kim Sophab, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who helped monitor the radios.
Two other former Khmer Rouge commanders linked to the train ambush remain free. In July a municipal court judge decided Chhouk Rin, who became a colonel in the government’s army when he defected 10 weeks after the attack, could not be held responsible for his alleged involvement in the ambush.
The judge cited a 1994 law that gave rebels who defected to the government within six months of the legislation’s passage immunity for crimes committed during their years with the Khmer Rouge. The government is also appealing that decision.
Sam Bith, now a two-star general in RCAF, was called for questioning in January, but failed to show up. Both Sam Bith and Chhouk Rin testified against Nuon Paet, who did not defect, in his trial last year.
Pailin Governor Y Chhien was also scheduled to testify for Nuon Paet, but he couldn’t make it to court Wednesday, said Dy Borima, one of Nuon Paet’s lawyers.
Put Theavy, who is also Chhouk Rin’s lawyer, said all of the charges against his client should be dropped because the train attack occurred during a time of war, when people are killed and property is destroyed—an assertion expected to be backed up by Y Chhien. Put Theavy also said the life sentence imposed on Nuon Paet should be reduced.
British Ambassador George Edgar, who attended the appeals trial, said he hoped the court would abide by the municipal court’s decision and Nuon Paet wouldn’t be set free. “The judgment in the Chhouk Rin case was based on the immunity law, which certainly doesn’t apply here.”