PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Five former Khmer Rouge fighters told a Cambodian court Friday they were innocent of the 1996 kidnapping and killing of a British mine clearer and his translator.
The former guerrillas appeared in blue prison uniforms at Phnom Penh Municipal Court to answer charges of premeditated murder and illegal confinement, and could face life in prison if convicted.
They stand accused of shooting Christopher Howes and translator Huon Huot a few days after seizing the pair and other members of their mine clearance team near the famed Angkor Wat temples in northwest Cambodia.
All five suspects — Khem Ngun, Puth Lim, Sin Dorn, Loch Mao, and Cheap Chet — were arrested over the past year, nearly a decade after a joint investigation into the incident by British and Cambodian police.
Khem Ngun, who served under notorious Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok, was allegedly the one who ordered the fighters under his control to shoot Howes and Huon Huot.
But Khem Ngun claimed the order to kill the prisoners came from deceased Khmer Rouge commander Khem Tem and was carried out by a soldier named Rin.
“Another Khmer Rouge soldier close to Ta Mok ordered the shooting of Howes in the head, and then I turned my face away and felt shock,” Khem Ngun told the court.
Khem Ngun was serving as a major general in the Cambodian military when he was arrested in November last year. The other suspects had become civil servants.
At the time of the killings, the communist Khmer Rouge were battling government troops in the final years of Cambodia’s drawn-out civil war.
Howes, 37, refused a chance to leave his kidnapped team of 20 mine clearers from the Britain-based Mines Advisory Group to retrieve a ransom.
While the rest of the team was eventually released, Howes and Huon Huot were taken deeper into rebel-held territory and killed.
Their remains were found in 1998, the same year Cambodia’s civil war ended when the Khmer Rouge movement disintegrated.
The verdict would be announced October 14, said presiding judge Iu Kim Sri.
Cambodia is littered with millions of land mines and other unexploded ordnance from nearly three decades of conflict.