Another sad chapter in Cambodia's history of violence came to a close on Tuesday with the sentencing of four former Khmer Rouge rebels for the abduction and murder of British mine clearance expert Christopher Howes and his Cambodian interpreter, Houn Hourth, in 1996.
The three-judge panel took less than five minutes to read the guilty verdict and announce that Khem Ngon, 58, Loch Mao, 56, and Puth Lim, 57, would spend the next 20 years in prison after being found guilty of murder, kidnapping and membership in the outlawed Khmer Rouge communist movement. Khmer Rouge leaders were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people during Cambodia's infamous "killing fields" period in the 1970s.
A fourth suspect, Sin Dorn, 52, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison for having assisted in the abduction of Howes and Houn, who were conducting a humanitarian de-mining mission for the UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) when they were taken hostage. A fifth defendant in the case was found not guilty.
At their trial earlier this month, the former Khmer Rouge fighters from the once notorious stronghold of Anlong Veng recounted how in March, 1996, they surrounded Howes and two dozen Cambodian de-miners in the village of Preah Ko near the revered Angkor temples.
The heavily armed rebels forced their captives into vehicles and drove them several kilometers to a spot where a village road ended and rebel-controlled territory began.
It was at this point that the Khmer Rouge guerrillas offered Howes the chance of freedom, instructing him to leave and return with a ransom for the release of his colleagues. A former member of the Royal Engineers and veteran of the war in the Falklands, Howes refused to leave his Cambodian team behind, possibly believing they stood a better chance of survival if he continued to negotiate for their release.
Instead, the rebels released everyone except for Howes and Houn. Both men were killed a few days later on the orders of the ruthless Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok. It took two years for British detectives to positively confirm that Howes had been executed and his body cremated on a makeshift pyre of wood and gasoline.
Following their sentencing, the four aging convicts, dressed in blue prison uniforms, sat on stone benches outside the courtroom as they waited to be transported back to jail. Wives, children and relatives who traveled from Anlong Veng for the verdict huddled around the men to say their final farewells. None of the convicted men talked to reporters.
"Today, we feel that justice has been done for our two colleagues who were brutally murdered whilst carrying out life-saving work," MAG's Chief Executive Lou McGrath said in a statement distributed at the courthouse. "Hopefully now, the loved ones of Chris and Hourth can finally move on with their lives," he said.
The case highlights the ongoing need for the protection of humanitarian workers, McGrath added. "There are people like Chris and Hourth working all over the world trying to help victims of disaster and conflict," he said. "It is simply unacceptable for the safety of such workers to be compromised or for them to become targets themselves."