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US court finds Cambodian rebel guilty of coup attempt

A Cambodian rebel leader was found guilty by a US jury on April 16 of fomenting a failed coup attempt in his native country in November 2000 and now faces a possible life sentence.

Chhun Yasith, 52, a California accountant who arrived in America in the 1980s after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, was accused of drawing up plans for the overthrow of Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh from his modest office in Long Beach, southwest of Los Angeles.

“The planning and fundraising happened right here in the United States,” prosecutor Lamar Baker told jurors earlier this month at the US District Court of Los Angeles. “It was like the labels say, ‘Made in the USA.’”

After a two-week trial, he was found guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction outside the United States and engaging in a military expedition against a nation with which the United States is at peace.

He was also found guilty of conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and conspiracy to damage or destroy property in a foreign country.

Chhun Yasith is scheduled to be sentenced on September 8.

 

It was misguided and naive in its execution but it was not misguided and naive in its intent. – Defense lawyer

Prosecutors said Chhun Yasith founded a group known as the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF) in 1998 and was elected president after traveling to Thailand to enlist the support former Cambodian military personnel.

The CFF planned a twin-pronged strategy to bring about revolution, prosecutors said. The group was ordered to carry out “popcorn” attacks on soft targets such as karaoke bars, nightclubs and coffee houses before launching an all-out assault to overthrow the government.

After one of the so-called “popcorn” attacks – the July 2000 bombing of a nightclub in Cambodia that left two people dead and many injured – Chhun Yasith sent a fax to members “bragging about hospitals filling up with victims,” Baker said.

Chhun Yasith selected a total of 291 targets for their ill-fated coup, codenamed “Operation Volcano.”

Despite being warned by senior CFF advisors that the rebel forces were not big enough to challenge the Cambodian army and police, Chhun Yasith – based in Thailand – pressed ahead with the coup attempt, which took place on November 24, 2000.

Dozens of armed men stormed into Phnom Penh firing AK-47 rifles and rockets at government buildings, leaving at least four people dead, before the rebellion was quelled.

More than 100 people were jailed for the attack, which left Hun Sen unscathed.

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

During the US trial, Chhun Yasith’s attorney, Richard Callahan, argued that his client’s “only goal was to bring democracy to his homeland.”

“It was misguided and naive in its execution but it was not misguided and naive in its intent,” Callahan said, saying his client had launched a “noble effort to save Cambodia” from the “tyrannical regime of Hun Sen.”

Callahan said his client had founded the CFF after deciding that “speeches and diplomacy were not going to be enough” to unseat Hun Sen.

Chhun Yasith and his wife, Sras Pech, 42, face another trial on July on charges of running a fraudulent tax-preparation business in Long Beach. (AFP)

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