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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bith's alibi disintegrates

Bith's alibi disintegrates

A parade of former Khmer Rouge, including senior leader 'Brother Number Two' Nuon

Chea, gave contradictory evidence on December 12 and 13 in the trial of Sam Bith,

whose alibi collapsed in spectacular fashion on the second day.

The trial followed the KR attack on a train in July 1994 during which 13 Cambodians

were killed, and three backpackers were kidnapped and later executed. The verdict

will be handed down on December 23.

Nuon Paet, whose appeal against his life sentence for his part in the attack was

rejected in September, pointed the finger at Sam Bith, his former commander. He said

Bith had ordered the action and then stayed in the Kampot area after it took place.

"I saw him at his house on July 28," Paet told the court. "When the

government launched the attack on Phnom Voar [the KR stronghold where the hostages

were held], Sam Bith escaped and left me on my own."

Paet later recalled a second meeting the two men had after the government's assault

on Phnom Voar.

"When I left Phnom Voar I stayed with Sam Bith in Kamchay [around 30 kilometers

distant] and he had a lot of troops there. Then he went to the border in July 1995;

I went to the border in November 1995," he testified.

Radio transcripts tendered in Nuon Paet's trial, which took place in 1999, indicated

that Pol Pot gave the order to kill the three westerners to Paet, and that the order

was delivered via Sam Bith.

However 69-year-old Sam Bith offered a different story. He claimed Pol Pot had relieved

him of his post two months before the ambush and sent him to Samlot in the northwest.

He testified that he left Kampot on June 1 and, at the time of the attack, was in

a Thai hospital receiving treatment for a long list of ailments. Several other former

low-ranking KR said they had traveled to the Thai border with Bith at that time.

That story was also backed by Nuon Chea, the most senior surviving KR leader and

Pol Pot's long-time deputy. The elderly man's imposing voice echoed through the courtroom

as he gave his testimony.

"While Sam Bith was in hospital in Thailand, Pol Pot led the southwest region

by himself," Nuon Chea pronounced.

But towards the end of the second day of the trial, Judge Sok Sethamony read a letter

from the Thai hospital that demolished Bith's alibi. The letter stated the hospital

had no record of Sam Bith's stay, and had not even opened until November 1994, a

month after Bith claimed he had been a patient there.

Another former KR commander accused of involvement in the attack, Chhouk Rin, wrote

to the court to support Bith and to protest his own innocence. He said he had not

received an order from Bith or anyone else to attack the train. Rin is currently

free on appeal against his sentence in September.

The parents of two of the backpacker victims also addressed the court. Dorothy Slater

and Jean-Claude Braquet are both seeking compensation and a harsh penalty for Bith.

"My family has spent $150,000 on this since 1994," Braquet told the court

as the judge gazed at a photograph of the three westerners.

"Sitting one row behind him was an ordeal," said Slater during a break

in proceedings. "I felt like strangling him, though of course I wouldn't, but

I had to move further away. I could not stand to be so near him."

Bith asked the court for mercy, lifting his shirt to demonstrate what he said were

tumors in his back, and claimed he only had five years to live.

His lawyer, Kar Savuth, argued that even if the court decided his client was guilty,

he should be freed under the 1994 law granting amnesty to KR defectors. Bith was

made a major-general in the Cambodian army when he defected in 1996 after 28 years

in the KR.

"Would the government promote a thief to be a major-general?" Kar Savuth

asked. "I don't think the government is crazy enough to do that."

And in a possible preview to a future KR tribunal, Nuon Chea told the court he had

simply been in charge of education during the Pol Pot era. These days, he said, he

dedicated himself to "following the five precepts of Buddhism".

The 79-year-old appeared lucid and capable of testifying about Khmer Rouge history.

"I remember very well the past, but sometimes I forget about the present,"

he said. "I can remember 60 years ago, but not what I ate for breakfast this


With negotiations between Cambodia and a reluctant UN likely to resume in the new

year, Bith's trial is being seen as a crucial test for the willingness of the government

to arrest and try former KR leaders.

George Cooper, the lawyer for the family of Mark Slater, said that to convict Sam

Bith would send a significant message to the world about the government's intentions.

"This is the first Khmer Rouge trial in which the top echelons of the former

leadership like Nuon Chea have lobbied for the acquittal of their former comrade,"

Cooper said. "It was a big deal for so many witnesses to make all the way from

Pailin. If Sam Bith is convicted, then it sends a signal that the Cambodian government

is not afraid to go ahead with a genocide tribunal."



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