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Cambodian coup plotter on trial in US

The trial of a US-based Cambodian rebel leader accused of attempting to overthrow the government in his homeland began in Los Angeles on April 1 as jury selection got underway.

Chhun Yasith, 51, the president of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), is charged with orchestrating a failed but bloody coup attempt against Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh in November 2000.

Chhun Yasith, an accountant, was arrested by the FBI at his home in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, in June 2005.

He faces four charges including conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and engaging in a military expedition against a nation with whom the United States is at peace.

He could be jailed for life without parole if convicted on all charges during his trial at Los Angeles Superior Court.

Prosecutors say Chhun Yasith was the mastermind of an attack eight years ago on government institutions in Cambodia’s capital, including the ministry of defense, the Council of Ministers and a military headquarters building.

In the attempt to overthrow Hun Sen, about 60 armed men stormed into Phnom Penh firing AK-47 rifles and rockets at government buildings, leaving at least four people dead. More than 100 people were jailed for the attack, codenamed “Operation Volcano.”

A US federal indictment against Chhun Yasith alleged that he travelled to the Thai border in August 1998 to meet Cambodian military personnel opposed to the ruling party. Prosecutors say the CFF was born at that meeting.

In a December 2000 interview with the Cambodia Daily, Chhun Yasith vowed to strike again to topple the government.

“We were prepared to transform Cambodia into a country like the US,” Chuun Yasith said. “We had a constitution that would’ve turned Cambodia into a republic.”

Chhun Yasith was tried in absentia in Phnom Penh in June 2001 and convicted of conspiracy, terrorism and membership of an illegal armed group.

Chhun Yasith and his wife, Sras Pech, are also facing separate charges alleging they ran a fraudulent tax-preparation business. Trial in that case is scheduled to begin on July 1. (AFP)

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