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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - KR fugitive speaks from hiding

KR fugitive speaks from hiding

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Chhouk Rin: on the run near his old Phnom Voar hideout and in bad health.

C hhouk Rin has spoken out from his jungle hideout, saying authorities will not catch him alive and that the real executioners of three foreign backpackers in 1994 are still alive.

A freelance cameraman recorded a one-hour interview with the former Khmer Rouge commander on February 23 in Rin's home province of Kampot, parts of which have been shown to the Post.

Rin was alone, unarmed and appeared relaxed on camera, although admitted he was seriously ill. At one point he rolled up his shorts to show a deep scar on his left thigh and told the interviewer he sometimes bled from his anus if he walked too much or sat in one place for too long.

He was dressed in a gray, long-sleeve shirt, long shorts and carried a plastic bag containing a mobile phone. He had no food or medicine with him.

Rin had directed the cameraman to various locations for an hour-and-a-half before finally meeting him at an undisclosed location somewhere near Phnom Voar shortly before sundown.

"I was scared," said the cameraman, who paid several hundred dollars to organize the interview and spoke to the Post only on condition of anonymity. "I was alone with my equipment."

The interview is believed to be the first Rin has given since a February 16 Supreme Court decision to uphold a conviction and life sentence on terrorism charges relating to Rin's alleged role in a train ambush in 1994.

At least 13 Cambodians were killed in the attack, and three western tourists were taken hostage and held ransom by the KR before being killed, causing international outrage that has simmered for the past decade.

During the recent interview, Rin maintained his innocence, saying he was not involved in the train attack and that the foreigners had only walked across his command area on the way to Nuon Paet's camp.

"He said, 'No I'm not [guilty], it's under [Nuon] Paet's command, Vith Vorn did the attacking' and that the actual killers are still alive," said the cameraman.

Rin called the court's decision "unacceptable" and was angry at being labeled a terrorist.

"He said when he heard what they said again and again ... he had an idea to find [Osama] bin Laden, and if he found him, he would plan an attack on the court," said the cameraman.

"He said luckily he didn't find him."

Rin said he frequently visited Phnom Penh where he stayed with people he trusted.

He denied admitting guilt in an interview published in the Post in January 1995 after he had defected to the government, in which he made comments about the train attack that indicated his involvement.

"I never said so. The attack was Vorn's duty, he was a region commander and Paet ordered [it]. There are many attackers still alive and living in Phnom Voar. Ninety percent of attackers are still here, you can ask them," said Rin, according to a transcript of the interview provided by the cameraman.

In February 2001, around 1,000 residents of Phnom Voar, a former KR stronghold in Kampot province, signed or thumbprinted a petition claiming Rin's innocence.

Days before the Supreme Court hearing last month, former KR general Nuon Paet, who was Rin's superior officer at the time, wrote two separate letters to the court and to Rin also saying Rin should not be held responsible for the train attack.

Despite police attempts to apprehend him, Rin said he still had some freedom to travel and took part in a Buddhist blessing ceremony several days before the taped interview to cleanse himself.

Rin told the cameraman that he was happy for the chance to speak out and wanted the tape to be played on Cambodian television.

The Post traveled to Kampot on March 3 seeking an interview, but had to eventually decline a middleman's offer of a meeting for $500 for ethical reasons.

The price dropped to $200 and the fixer later phoned Rin to ask him about an interview without payment, but Rin refused, saying there were authorities close by and it wasn't worth the risk.

"It's alright for you," Rin told the man by phone. "You have a house to live in but for me, I have no place to stay."

While Rin's conviction was welcomed by the countries of the murdered backpackers - Australia, Britain and France - he remains a popular figure in Phnom Voar. His family and close associates stand by the man they say has taken the blame for the attack while other higher-ranking officers and provincial officials have escaped responsibility.

His wife, Yem Sav, said she last heard from Rin five days before, when he called to say he had received some medical treatment and was feeling better. She said he was in Phnom Penh.

They married nine years ago, after the death of Rin's first wife. Sav said her mother is a cousin of Rin, and the family thought the match would be good, especially for Rin's children. He had four children with his first wife and a son, now 8 years old, with Sav.

"For me, he is a good person," said Sav. If you don't believe me, just go and ask the people of Phnom Voar - they will say the same as me."

Friends said that Rin was passionate about developing his community, which consists mostly of former KR soldiers and their families living in a harsh, hilly landscape about 30 kilometers from Kampot.

He was given a large area of land after his defection but has sold all but one plantation over the years.

Sitting near her outdoor kitchen, Sav appeared frail and clutched a mobile phone in her hand. There was a sense of unease each time the phone rang in the presence of journalists.

As the Post spoke to Sav, Rin's 18-year-old daughter, Cheang Theavy, arrived on the back of a motobike ridden by Rin's close friend and doctor, Ouch Nuon, known locally as Paet Nuon.

Nuon, who said he was the medic treating Rin for ongoing leg injuries at the time of the 1994 train ambush, said he last saw him the day before the Supreme Court hearing.

The doctor said Rin now required injections twice a day of the antibiotic Thidim (ceftazieime) to treat his tuberculosis, heart disease and hepatitis C. He did not mention HIV, although Rin's wife told the Post previously that Rin had contracted the disease five years ago.

Nuon invited the families and country representatives of the murdered backpackers to come to Phnom Voar and conduct their own investigation.

He also had a message from Rin, although he didn't say how recent it was.

"He [Rin] left a message that if he dies, just burn his body. He is scared someone might make business out of his death," said Nuon.

But a military policeman in Kampot, who did not identify himself, said that police knew where Rin was hiding but did not want to arrest him.

"Let him die in the jungle. It's better than arresting him," said the policeman. "We do not want to face a reaction from his followers."

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