After numerous delays, the self-proclaimed leader of the US-based Cambodian Freedom Fighters will face trial in a US federal court Oct. 9 for inciting an attack on Cambodia, according to court documents and a defense attorney.
Chhun Yasith, 50, was indicted in June 2005 on charges related to November 2000 clashes involving government forces in Phnom Penh. He was arrested at his home in Long Beach, California, by federal agents and has been awaiting trial in jail. He was also charged with his wife, Pech Sras, 41, with tax fraud. That case is scheduled for trial Jan. 22, 2008.
Recent interviews ahead of the trial show Chhun Yasith's culpability in the violence remains in doubt, and there are those who maintain the obscure group was pursuing a patriotic, legal avenue in democracy-building.
The impending trial will likely stir up a new round of speculation, controversy and curiosity over 90 minutes of shooting and explosions that involved a ragtag squad of 50 men toting rockets, grenades and assault rifles. The violence would be labeled a terrorist attack, a coup attempt and an amateur assault, and it ended with at least four dead and 14 wounded. The violence led to the arrest of 64 suspected CFF members in Cambodia.
Chhun Yasith was officially charged with "conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, conspiracy to damage or destroy property in a foreign country and engaging in a military expedition against a nation with whom the United States is at peace," the US Department of Justice said in a statement at the time of his arrest.
One of Chhun Yasith's former lieutenants, however, described him to VOA Khmer this month as a "patriot and a hero."
So Sokhom, once the head of the Washington, DC, chapter of the CFF, wept openly as he recalled Chhun Yasith's vision of Cambodian freedom and his subsequent US incarceration.
Chhun Yasith began his fledging freedom fighters after Cambodia's 1997 coup, said So Sokhom, who became a born-again Christian after "the coup" failed and now owns a jewelry store in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the US capital.
As the movement grew, its leaders were encouraged by tough talk in 1998 from US Congressmen like Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Orange County and Mitch McConnell, a Republican Senator from Kentucky, both strong opponents of the Hun Sen regime, So Sokhom said.
So Sokhom thought he had joined a legal group, albeit with the expressed aim of overthrowing Hun Sen and bringing democracy to Cambodia. He said he was questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after Chhun Yasith's arrest but never was charged with a crime.
CFF supporters planned to convince top leaders within the government's security apparatus that they were backing the wrong leader, he said.
"For example, for bodyguards, if you are protecting Hun Sen, just turn around," So Sokhom said. "Arrest him."
The CFF plan included sending agents into Cambodia to convince members of the military and police to turn on Hun Sen, to open a revolt "like a blossoming flower," but not to buy weapons or fuel a war, So Sokhom said. They considered this more education about freedom and democracy than conspiracy, he explained.
The group could not afford much else, he said.
"How much is one bullet? And how much is one gun?" he said. "And where do you go to buy?"
The prosecution will offer another story, according to the Department of Justice. The prosecution will contend that Chhun Yasith traveled to the Thai border in 1998, in an attempt to convince anti-Hun Sen military leaders of a violent overthrow, with a plan to funnel funds into Cambodia for the purchase of weapons.
"The CFF eventually developed plans for 'Operation Volcano,' which would be a major assault on Cambodian government institutions and Prime Minister Sen," the Justice Department said. "On November 24, 2000, Chhun allegedly orchestrated the attack on the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, which included attacks on buildings housing the Ministry of Defense and a military headquarters facility."
The Best Defense
Chhun Yasith's trial was postponed several times, mostly related to his changing defense lawyers, court documents show.
Chhun Yasith now has a court-appointed attorney, Richard Callahan. Callahan told VOA Khmer last week that jury selection will begin Oct. 9 in a trial that could take two to three weeks. The trial was unlikely to be delayed again, he said.
The CFF president originally hired a criminal attorney, William Graysen, but he eventually left the case, he said, because Chhun Yasith wasn't able to continue paying him.
Reached by phone recently, Graysen told VOA Khmer that Chhun Yasith's coup charges were "defensible."
"I was considering a defense that he had some Congressional support," said Greyson, who traveled to Cambodia and interviewed several key imprisoned freedom fighters, including Richard Kiri Kim, a Cambodian-American arrested in Cambodia after the 2000 attack.
In that defense, Graysen said, Chhun Yasith was "gathering support" for regime change but did he did not authorize a coup; instead, impatient generals "went on without him."
Chhun Yasith had hoped to build congressional support for the overthrow of Hun Sen, similar to scenarios in Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, Graysen said, when US-backed guerillas fought communist regimes in Central America. Once asked what a new Cambodian government would look like, he said, Chhun Yasith answered, "like the Republican party."
The men he deposed were "not reliable," unable to link Chhun Yasith to the launch of the coup and could only name him as president of the CFF, Greyson said.
"It's defensible," he said. "They have to show he authorized the coup."
Failure and Betrayal
So Sokhom said the movement was betrayed from the inside. The officers the group had recruited to "educate about freedom and democracy" sold their information to Cambodia's chief of military intelligence and former senior military adviser to Hun Sen, Mol Roeup, So Sokhom said.
The Hun Sen government was lying in wait for the attack in 2000, he said.
Those informers were in turn arrested by Mol Roeup and his men, So Sokhom said.
One of the CFF top leaders, Tong Samean, turned out to be a nephew of Hun Sen advisor Om Yentieng, and wanted Chhun Yasith to fail, So Sokhom said. A brother of Richard Kiri Kim's wife also turned over their plans, he said.
The end result was that a small band of men, poorly equipped and ill-trained, met on the night of Nov. 24, 2000, in front of Phnom Penh's railway station. They lobbed a grenade at a truck full of traffic police, fired rockets at a military barracks, shot buildings housing the ministries of Rural Development and Defense and engaged in gun fire with police and military police on Pochentong Boulevard.
The violence ended in death for a handful of alleged freedom fighters, wounds for several government forces and a few bullet pocks in a government wall.
Scores were jailed, in what opposition leaders say was a round-up of political opponents to the ruling Cambodian People's Party. In Cambodia, five men received life terms in prison, and 25 more were handed lesser sentences, the Cambodia Daily reported a year later.
The government has maintained the violence was a terrorist attack.
Even today the Cambodian government, with help from the FBI, is conducting ongoing operations to root out suspected Cambodian Freedom Fighters. According to the US National Counterterrorism Center, a grenade attack in Phnom Penh in the days following Chhun Yasith's 2005 arrest was blamed on the CFF, though no group publicly claimed responsibility.
Chhun Yasith also faces charges of tax fraud scheduled for trial in January 2008, according to court documents.
"The 19-count indictment alleges conspiracy, two counts of filing a false return and 16 counts of aiding and assisting preparation of false returns," the Justice Department said in a statement.
The indictment alleges that Chhun Yasith and wife Pech Sras sought Cambodian-Americans receiving welfare and other government assistance and convinced them to file fraudulent tax returns for a refund.
"As part of the scheme alleged in the indictment, Chhun and Pech told clients that the United States government was distributing money to the poor from its budget surplus and that by filing tax returns they would receive a tax refund," the Justice Department statement said.
Chhun Yasith earned up to $3,000 per tax return by through these "fictitious" tax forms, it said.
Chhun Yasith's alleged tax fraud likely played a key role in his fundraising for the CFF, Brian Hershman, the former Assistant US Attorney for the case, told VOA Khmer.
"It's obviously not a huge stretch" to link the tax fraud to the freedom fighters, he said. A large portion of Chhun Yasith's income allegedly came from the tax scam, and he was the top fundraiser for the group, Hershman said.
It took nearly five years for Chhun Yasith to be arrested, and another two years for a trial to take place. Now the man who wrote Cambodia a new constitution and planned new government ministries, who made his Long Beach accounting office the headquarters for a resistance movement and designed a new flag for his blossoming army, faces life in prison for the 2000 attack and up to 29 years for tax fraud.
The freedom fighter movement has disbanded, said So Sokhom, and there is nothing to do now but to pray for Hun Sen and his top cadre.
"I don't feel like I hate Hun Sen," said So Sokhom, sitting among sparkling jewels and gold in his brightly lighted shop. "I don't feel like I hate anyone anymore."