Trial hears Khmer Rouge leader had blanket policy to murder foreigners on grounds they supported the government
Ian MacKinnon in Phnom Penh
Friday October 03 2008
A British mine-clearing expert who was murdered in Cambodia and his remains burned to hide the evidence was killed on the orders of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, a court heard today.
The trial of five former Khmer Rouge cadres accused of the kidnap and murder of Christopher Howes, 37, more than 12 years ago, heard that the communist leader had a blanket policy to murder foreigners on the grounds that they supported the Cambodian government.
Howes was shot within days of his capture while leading a mine-clearance team north of Siem Reap - home to the Angkor Wat temple complex - after his abductors lulled him into a false sense of security by laying out a sleeping mattress for the night and giving him fruit.
His interpreter, Huon Houth, who was among the 30-strong team from British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), was murdered a day earlier when his captors deemed him "no longer necessary" because one of the alleged killers spoke English.
The disappearance of the former British army engineer from Backwell, near Bristol, and Hourth remained a mystery for more than two years as Cambodia's civil war ground on in its death throes.
Investigations by a Scotland Yard team working with the Cambodian police eventually unravelled Howes' fate, declaring he was murdered after forensic tests on bone fragments found in a fire.
The evidence collected from witness statements in the two years after Howes' disappearance was presented at the Phnom Penh court today by former Metropolitan police anti-terrorism officer, Mike Dickson, now an advisor to the UN-backed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal.
The men in the dock had lived freely in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng until their arrest a year ago despite suspicions of their involvement in the killings. A deal to end the civil war in 1998 pardoned many Khmer Rouge cadres.
One of the accused, Khem Ngoun, 59, the former chief-of-staff of the one-legged Khmer Rouge army commander, Ta Mok, was a brigadier-general in the Cambodian army until his arrest.
Along with the others, Loch Mao, 54, a Khmer Rouge officer who became a civil servant, Cheath Chet, 34, Puth Lim, 58, and Sin Dorn, 52, the frail Ngoun faces life imprisonment for murder and illegal detention when the investigating judge, Iv Kimsry, delivers his verdict in 10 days' time.
In a marathon session the court heard today of the chilling last days of Howes and Hourth after their abduction on March 26 1996. Some of the de-mining team escaped almost immediately while all the others were released after Howes declined to abandon his staff to fetch ransom money.
Howes and Hourth were taken towards Anlong Veng. But in an interview with the British detectives, Khieu Sampan, the Khmer Rouge's nominal head of state, said that Hourth was killed in Kul village after Ngoun said the interpreter was unnecessary.
Howes was held in a school where Ngoun interrogated him, before he was taken out into the countryside to a road near the house of Mok, who passed the order to "solve the problem" and kill him.
Howes was taken in a white Toyota pickup truck driven by Lim, accompanied by four guards including Ngoun, Mao, and two others, Khem Tem and Soeun Rim, who subsequently died. In a statement to police before his death, Rim said Mao killed Howes with two bullets from an AK-59 rifle provided by Ngoun.
Both Ngoun and Mao changed earlier statements they made and maintained only Rim, who died in 2004, fired the fatal shots. Mao is adamant his weapon jammed and he could not fire.
All the accused argued they acted on orders of the Khmer Rouge's brutal "brother number one" and that failure to do so would have meant certain death.
But Lou McGrath, MAG chief executive who was present at the hearing, dismissed the defence.
"It's good to see this trial," he said. "But I think the defence that if you don't kill others you will be killed yourself is what leads to genocide. It's no excuse and I hope the judge decides that they will feel the full weight of the law."