Sam Bith, the former Khmer Rouge commander wanted in connection with the murder of
three western backpackers and 13 Cambodians in 1994, will face trial within six months,
investigating judge Mong Mony Chariya said May 23.
Bith was arrested May 22 at his home in Sdao near Battambang, said Sok Phal, spokesman
for the Ministry of Interior (MoI).
His arrest is based on the accusations of another ex-KR commander Nuon Paet, who
is to date the only person convicted of the killings. Bith is accused of issuing
the order to kill Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michael
Braquet. The three were kidnapped from a Sihanoukville-bound train in July 1994 and
executed at Phnom Vour in September or October that year.
Sam Bith and one of his deputies, Chhouk Rin, appeared as witnesses at the June 1999
trial of Nuon Paet at which Paet was sentenced to life in prison. Paet's lawyers
claimed the killings were carried out on Bith's orders.
Bith and Rin were then indicted as co-defendants in July 2000. Rin was acquitted
after the court ruled he was immune from prosecution under the government's KR amnesty
deal. Bith never appeared.
On May 23 investigating judge Chariya read Bith the charges of premeditated murder,
terrorism, kidnapping, destruction of public property, robbery and illegal detention.
Bith made no response to the charges, Chariya said.
Bith ignored reporters' questions at Phnom Penh's Municipal Court. Looking gray,
crestfallen and tired, Bith kept his head down, supported by two police officers
up the stairs to Chariya's office.
He seemed more defiant during the hour long meeting with court officials at which
he appeared without legal representation. His former lawyer, Kar Savuth, told the
Post he had not decided whether to take on Bith as a client again. He said Bith had
ignored him and refused to pay him last time.
A warrant for Bith's arrest was issued more than two years ago but his arrest was
delayed due to a lack of information about his whereabouts, the MoI's Phal said.
Recent press reports indicated Bith was living openly in a large house next to a
police post in Sdao apparently without fear of arrest.
Some observers suggested the decision to move against Bith was an appeal to donors
ahead of next month's donors meeting, or designed as a signal to the UN that the
government was prepared to move against former KR.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng is scheduled to visit Australia next month, but his
spokesman said the visit was not a consideration in Bith's arrest.
Speaking on May 23 Prime Minister Hun Sen said it was his government's duty to arrest
"Justice should be found. Those countries [Australia, Britain and France] always
ask us about the resolution of this problem," he said.
Diplomats welcomed the arrest. Australian ambassador Louise Hand was "thrilled"
at the arrest and believed the Wilson family would be equally happy.
"From our point of view this is a very, very good outcome and we want to see
[the Cambodian government] bring him to trial," she said.
Hand said Australia had raised the issue "regularly and repeatedly over the
last umpteen years, [but] lately they've shown a fresh responsiveness". She
praised the government's courage in acting on the arrest warrant.
Sam Bith, aka Ta Bith, was former deputy to Southwest Zone commander Ta Mok. Mok,
with Bith at his side, was responsible for carrying out some of the bloodiest purges
of the Pol Pot era. However while Mok is in prison awaiting trial, Bith is thought
an unlikely candidate for a future KR tribunal.
In an email to the Post KR expert Steve Heder stated he was unaware of any documents
directly implicating Bith in crimes against humanity, although there was witness
testimony of "his involvement in war crimes vis-à-vis Vietnam (shelling
and ground attacks on Ha Tien)".
Transcripts of KR radio transmissions captured from Nuon Paet's hideout in 1994 indicated
Pol Pot himself ordered the killings.
The transcripts surfaced after the attack's leader, Chhouk Rin, defected in October
1994. Rin handed the hand-written radio transcripts to General Nhiek Bun Chhay, then
first deputy chief of staff in RCAF.
On August 23, 1994 Pol Pot instructed Paet to abandon ransom negotiations and use
the hostages to "scare foreign governments". Pol Pot sought to use them
as leverage to end French and Australian military assistance to Phnom Penh.
Paet, the document stated, reported the instructions to Sam Bith, his superior officer.
On September 25 Paet communicated the order to kill the hostages to Bith.
"According to the instructions of #99 [Pol Pot's code number], the recommendations
are the three have no further use. Suggestion to #37 [Sam Bith] is that they must
be destroyed ... After the execution keep it strictly secret," the translation
The three were killed after September 28 and their bodies found October 30, six days
after government forces took Phnom Vour. Their bodies showed signs of torture.
Bith was made a major-general after defecting in 1996 after 28 years as a KR soldier.
In June last year he was relieved of his duties as an advisor to the Ministry of
Defense in what was widely seen as a prelude to his arrest.