THE leader of a ragtag militia that attempted to overthrow the Cambodian government in 2000 has been sentenced by a US court to life in prison without chance of parole, a ruling that was applauded by government officials on Wednesday.
Chhun Yasith, 53, the head of the US-based Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), was arrested in 2005 for organising a November 2000 attack on government buildings in the capital that left at least eight dead and 14 injured. In April 2008, the US district court in Los Angeles found him guilty of violating the US Neutrality Act, which outlaws military operations against nations with which the US is at peace.
In a hearing at the court on Tuesday, prosecutors said the CFF was ordered to carry out “popcorn” attacks on soft targets such as karaoke bars and nightclubs before launching an all-out assault to overthrow the government on November 24.
In sentencing Chhun Yasith, Judge Dean Pregerson expressed some sympathy for the defendant, who said he formed a rebel militia to avenge the murder of his father by the Khmer Rouge.
“I don’t think Mr. Chhun is an evil human being,” Pregerson said. “I think he’s had a tragic life – and had the misfortune of being born in a place where terrible things were happening.”
But he said a harsh sentence was unavoidable. “I do not want to be the person who does not say to all those groups that, if you conspire against the US, that the US will tolerate or be lenient to you,” The Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Chhun Yasith said he felt he had to do something for Cambodia after arriving in the US as a refugee in 1982.
“I’ve been punished because I failed, that I’m not good enough to overthrow that government,” he told the court.
Chhun Yasith’s attorney, Richard Callahan Jr, said he would appeal the sentence.
On Wednesday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong welcomed the sentence, describing the November 2000 coup attempt as a “clear terrorist act”.
“We applaud the decision taken by the US government to prosecute Chhun Yasith,” he told reporters after signing an agreement with Japan seeking funds for the construction of the Neak Leung Bridge across the Mekong River.
“We welcome the elimination of terrorism, and not just terrorism in Cambodia and the US, but in all regions where it threatens people’s security.”
Chhun Yasith, who plotted the putsch from his Long Beach accountancy firm, was an unlikely candidate for the leadership of an armed militia.
A 2001 Time article described him as “a doughy, chino-clad little man”, and a reporter for The New Republic said he looked “more like a bowling pin than a warrior”.
But the former Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) member – expelled in the mid-1990s for misuse of party funds – was deadly serious in his attempts to overthrow the government.
In 1998, after the bloody factional fighting that saw the premier vanquish his royalist Funcinpec opponents the year before, Chhun Yasith travelled to Thailand, where he founded the CFF with the aim of liberating Cambodia from “communist dictators and Vietnamese puppets”.
On November 24, 2000, around 70 CFF fighters, armed with AK-47s, grenades and B-40 rockets, slipped into the capital and attacked several government buildings, including the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ E70 Base in Dangkor district.
Government troops quickly quelled the CFF’s ill-coordinated coup attempt, codenamed “Operation Volcano”.
After the attacks, rights groups and opposition politicians accused the government of arbitrarily jailing law-abiding Funcinpec and SRP members in connection with the plot.
Human Rights Watch reported in December 2000 that within two weeks of the attacks, more than 200 people were arrested across Cambodia, many without warrants.
Chhun Yasith was tried in absentia in Phnom Penh in June 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Richard Kiri Kim, a fellow US citizen who directed the CFF forces in Phnom Penh, was captured after the attack and remains in prison on a life term.
Despite the failure of the “coup”, Chhun Yasith vowed to continue working to topple Hun Sen by force, saying that nonviolent methods would not work against the Hun Sen “dictatorship”. “Next time,” he told a reporter in 2004, “we will attack the whole country.”
When contacted Wednesday, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay also applauded the US court’s ruling against the CFF leader, but expressed concern for other individuals rounded up in the wake of the November 2000 events.
“We respect the US court, because we believe they have done a proper investigation compared to the court in Cambodia, where there was political interference,” he said.
In April, the families of five men imprisoned in connection with the attacks repeated earlier requests that they be pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni. This request was seconded by eight SRP lawmakers the week after.
Son Chhay said he spoke with Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana in April, and that the SRP was using “all possible legal means” to secure the release of those jailed in connection with the plot.
“We do not have the full story of how the people got involved with Chhun Yasith,” he said. “It is our understanding that they are all innocent.”
Ven Dara, whose husband Hem Buntheoun was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the CFF attacks, said she was unaware of Chhun Yasith’s trial, but again called for her husband to be let free.
“I have written a request for an amnesty and the release of my husband, but there is no response,” she said. “I think he should be released, as he was cheated – he did not intend to do it on his own.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP