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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Aus diplomat denied public hearing

Aus diplomat denied public hearing

CANBERRA - An Australian inquiry into the 1994 abductions and executions of three

foreign backpackers in Cambodia is winding up amid controversy, with a diplomat refused

permission to testify in public and the family of Melbourne victim David Wilson accusing

senators of not wanting to uncover the truth.

Diplomat Alastair Gaisford, formerly at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, has

already secretly told the Senate Parliamentary inquiry that efforts to release the

backpackers were willfully negligent.

Gaisford is understood to have given the inquiry by the Senate's Foreign Affairs,

Defense and Trade Reference Committee a damning written account of efforts to release

the hostages including an assessment that the lives of Wilson, Mark Slater of Britain

and Jean-Michel Braquet of France were considered expendable in pursuit of wider

objectives.

However, Gaisford has been told he cannot testify in person before the committee,

which has been sitting for 21 months, unless it is done in a closed session. He told

the Post this week that he would refuse to give testimony unless the committee allowed

him a public hearing.

"Since the Wilson family first called for a public inquiry in 1994 I have maintained

there were serious, avoidable problems with the management of the case which I believed

were best addressed at a public venue such as before a Parliamentary inquiry,"

Gaisford said.

"Regrettably I can reach no other conclusion than the committee wants to hear

evidence in secret to protect the then [Australian] Government, the Minister and

the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade," he said

The committee's demand that Gaisford testify in secret has infuriated members of

the Wilson family, who accuse senators on the Labor-chaired committee of not wanting

to get to the truth.

Committee chairman Senator Michael Forshaw denied there had been a cover-up but said

he could not reveal why evidence had to be given in private.

Wilson's brother, Tim, said: "The senators just aren't fair dinkum about this

inquiry. We feel if they were, they would invite all witnesses openly. No good will

come of this inquiry otherwise. We just believe that they aren't fair dinkum about

getting to the truth of what happened to Dave."

Tim Wilson has called for the setting up of a watchdog for Australia's Department

of Foreign Affairs, which he says is not representing the rights of Australians overseas.

Gaisford has made it clear to the committee his strong belief the hostages could

have been saved but that Australian diplomats on the ground were failed by weak leadership

and poor decisions back in Canberra.

Gaisford is also believed to have expressed his belief the hostages were not the

most important consideration of the Cambodian military authorities and were viewed

more as a nuisance.

Wilson, Slater and Braquet were executed by the Khmer Rouge more than a month after

being kidnapped from a train in Kampot province in July 1994.

Gaisford, who was Consul in the Australian Embassy at the time, criticizes changes

in key personnel of the relevant embassies which he says led to personal differences

among diplomats.

He also claims that lessons were not drawn from the kidnapping earlier that year

of American aid worker Melissa Himes, who was released after being held hostage for

40 days by Nuon Paet, the same KR commander who allegedly ordered the executions

of the three backpackers.

Gaisford, a whistle-blower in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who has

been suspended for alleged disloyalty to the department, said the committee was pushing

to end its inquiry despite having failed to hear evidence from key players. He cited

Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister in Australia's former Labor government, former Cambodian

Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Australian Federal Police agent Superintendent

Chris Eaton and an Australian consultant on hostage strategy, Army Major Peter Bartu.

Gaisford said that most importantly the inquiry had failed to take evidence from

the Cambodian government's chief hostage negotiator, General Chea Dara, who he claims

twice did a deal for the hostages to be released and was twice sabotaged.

"What actually happened and why General Dara was eventually sidelined is crucial

to any finding," Gaisford said. "This has never been explained and the

committee must do more to get to the bottom of it."

The committee has heard that a Liberal party committee member, Senator Chris Ellison,

last year made an attempt to contact Chea Dara in Paris where he is living. The committee

told the Wilson family last October that Dara apparently declined an invitation to

give evidence. It is not known if any official approaches have been made to the Cambodian

government for Dara to testify.

Gaisford said the committee also failed to hear testimony earlier this year from

Prince Sirivudh, a key player in the hostage drama who had visited Australia and

was available to give evidence. It had also failed to hear evidence in public from

former Minister of Finance Sam Rainsy, who testified in secret to the committee in

1995.

A leaked transcript reveals that Rainsy testified that Dara had told him he was going

to succeed in obtaining the release of the hostages during August 1994 but he was

suddenly replaced as a negotiator without explanation.

Rainsy said Dara had told him it was as if "some high-ranking people did not

want the release to take place".

Gareth Evans, now the deputy leader of the Opposition, has told the committee that

he did not believe it necessary for him to respond in any more detail than he had

already done to specific allegations about the case.

The committee - which has heard evidence from nearly all witnesses in public sessions

- has said it will table its findings in the Australian Senate May 28.

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