Khmer Rouge soldiers jailed for murder of British charity worker

Four former members of the Khmer Rouge were given long jail terms by a Cambodian court today for the kidnapping and murder of a British mine-clearing expert and his interpreter 12 years ago

Four former members of the Khmer Rouge were given long jail terms by a Cambodian court today for the kidnapping and murder of a British mine-clearing expert and his interpreter 12 years ago.

Three of the accused were sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment and a fourth got 10 years for the murders of the former British army engineer Christopher Howes and Huon Hourth.

Howes, 37, from Backwell, near Bristol, was murdered in the Cambodian forest days after he was seized with a 30-strong team from the British-based Mines Advisory Group (Mag) in March 1996, most of whom escaped or were released within a day.

But Howes' fate remained a mystery for two years until Scotland Yard detectives investigating the disappearances discovered fragments of bone in a fire that the guilty men used in an effort to destroy the evidence.

The Phnom Penh court heard that three of the accused, including a former senior Khmer Rouge commander, combed the fire's ashes for fragments to show communist guerrilla group's army chief, Ta Mok.

The Khmer Rouge's military commander had passed down the order from the leader, Pol Pot, that Howes should be killed on the grounds that foreigners in the country were helping the Cambodian government.

However, it was only after the final collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime 1998 and the defection of most of the guerrillas that it was confirmed Howes had been murdered near the 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex.

It was another 11 years before the five accused - Khem Ngoun, 59, Loch Mao, 54, Puth Lim, 58, Sin Dorn, 52, and Cheath Chet, 34 - were arrested in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng and charged.

Ngoun, Ta Mok's chief of staff who became a brigadier-general in the Cambodian army, Mao and Lim, admitted they had been present when Howes was shot dead and burned. But all accused another guerrilla, Nget Rim, who has since died, of firing the fatal shot.

They each received 20 years for being part of the murder conspiracy, while Dorn, who played a smaller role early in the kidnapping, was given 10 years by Judge Iv Kimsry. Chet was freed.

The court heard that Howes had been given the chance by his kidnappers to leave to fetch ransom money for the Mag team. But the former Royal Engineer chose to remain, a decision that earned him a posthumous Queen's Award for Gallantry.

Most of the Mag team escaped or were freed within a day of the kidnapping, but Howes and Hourth were held and taken towards Anlong Veng. Hourth was killed when he was deemed "no longer necessary" as Ngoun could speak English to Howes.

After Ngoun interrogated Howes at a school the British de-miner was driven into the countryside where he was given a meal of tropical fruit before he was shot, execution style, on the orders of Khem Tem, another Khmer Rouge commander who has also since died.

"Khem Tem is the one who gave the order for the killing," said Mao. "After Rim shot him once in the head, Tem ... said shoot him again in the chest. But Ngoun shouted 'no. He's already dead'."

Mag welcomed the verdict and said that the families of both victims were "extremely satisfied" with the outcome so long after the event.

"We feel that justice has been done for our two colleagues who were brutally murdered whilst carrying out life-saving work," said Lou McGrath, Mag chief executive, in a statement issued at the court.


Ian MacKinnon, south-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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