Archive for April, 2008

American government supports Khmer Rouge, prosecutes anti-Communists

April 1, 2008

By Josh Gerstein, from today’s New York Sun:

‘Brave’ Foe of Khmer Rouge To Go on Trial Today in L.A.

A Cambodian-American accountant is scheduled to go on trial in a Los Angeles courtroom this morning for allegedly inciting a failed coup attempt in his homeland, some 8,000 miles away.

The former leader of the self-styled Cambodian Freedom Fighters, Yasith Chhun, 51, is charged with violating the Neutrality Act, a law that dates to 1797 and bars Americans from taking up arms against countries with which America is at peace. Mr. Chhun also faces charges of conspiring to kill, to destroy property, and to use a weapon of mass destruction in connection with the unsuccessful putsch in November 2000.

Seven people, some or all of them insurgents, were reported killed in the attempt to oust the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former brigade commander for the Khmer Rouge, which killed about 1.7 million people during its rule in the late 1970s.

“Chhun is a brave man,” a former vice president of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, So Sokhom, said yesterday during a telephone interview from his jewelry store in Arlington, Va. “It doesn’t matter. Until the day I die, I still salute him. Nobody stood up to defend the Cambodians except for people like him.”

Mr. Hun Sen was named a co-prime minister of Cambodia after United Nations-sponsored elections in 1993. In 1997, he forced out his counterpart, Prince Ranariddh, in what outsiders called a coup. Mr. Hun Sen’s party won elections in 1998, but the campaigning was marred by violence and observers decried the elections as unfair.

Mr. Sokhom said he has never considered the prime minister to be a clean break from the murderous Pol Pot era. “Do you think Hun Sen’s government is not Khmer Rouge? Hun Sen’s government is Khmer Rouge people,” Mr. Sokhom said. “The world doesn’t care.”

A congressman who met with Mr. Chhun and other leaders of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, Dana Rohrabacher of California, said yesterday he is disappointed that the Justice Department is pursuing the case, which was filed in 2005. “I think this is still a wrongheaded prosecution,” Mr. Rohrabacher told The New York Sun yesterday. “When this man and his group were planning their action to be taken against the Hun Sen regime, it was clearly not a democratic government and it was engaged in murdering its political opponents and repressing its people. You don’t get rid of that type of negative force in society simply by wishing it away.”

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Mr. Rohrabacher said it was “very possible” that he would testify in the case, but that neither the prosecution nor the defense had contacted him about doing so.

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More than a dozen Cambodians, including government officials and others who allegedly witnessed or were injured in attacks planned by Mr. Chhun’s group, have been flown to Los Angeles at the American government’s expense to testify at the trial. Officials at the Cambodian embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment.

Neutrality Act prosecutions are unusual, but not unheard of. A similar case is pending in Sacramento against a former Hmong general, Vang Pao, and 10 other men accused of plotting to topple the communist government in Laos. The law has also been used recently to win convictions against Islamic militants in Virginia who trained to join forces fighting India in Kashmir.

However, prosecutions of seven men charged in 1988 with arming the Contras in Nicaragua ultimately foundered after a judge ruled that the case could not be pursued if American officials were covertly fighting the Nicaraguan government.

The judge on Mr. Chhun’s case, Dean Pregerson, has dismissed that precedent. Last month, he deemed any covert operations against Cambodia “irrelevant” to the case. He also barred the defense from asking or arguing about any undercover operations America may have sanctioned in the Southeast Asian country.

Mr. Chhun’s attorney, Richard Callahan Jr., did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article.

If convicted, Mr. Chhun faces the possibility of several life sentences. The charges also carried the potential of the death penalty, but prosecutors elected not to seek it.

Some observers said the American government’s aggressive pursuit of Mr. Chhun stands in marked contrast to the aborted investigation the FBI carried out into a 1997 incident in which grenades were thrown into an election rally, killing 16 people and injuring more than 100 others, including an American who formerly worked for the International Republican Institute. An initial FBI probe was all but abandoned after evidence pointed to bodyguards for Mr. Hun Sen.

“I find it extremely curious,” Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said. “They went after this ragtag bunch that was not in power and did not systematically commit human rights abuses for many years like Hun Sen has and they, for political reasons, dropped the investigation into the grenade attack which many think derailed any chance of a serious multi-party political system there.”

Other analysts have described the charges against Mr. Chhun, who promoted a Cambodian rebellion openly from a Long Beach strip mall, as a quid pro quo for Cambodian help in rounding up members of a an Islamic terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiya.

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