A U.S. appeals court today rejected an appeal by Yasith Chhun, a California tax preparer and leader of a failed Cambodian coup, to overturn a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder and destroy property in a foreign country.
Chhun formed the Cambodian Freedom Fighters in 1998 to overthrow the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The CFF's Operation Volcano culminated in an attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh on Nov. 24, 2000, that left several civilians and soldiers dead and the long-ruling Hun Sen firmly in charge.
On April 16, 2008, a U.S. jury found Chhun guilty of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, conspiracy to damage or destroy property in a foreign country, mounting an expedition against a friendly nation, and conspiracy to launch a weapon of mass destruction outside the United States. Two years later he was sentenced to life in prison.
His appeal, according to court documents, claimed that Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was too vague. Chhun argued that attempting to overthrow the government of Cambodia was not terrorism, and therefore an "antiterrorism" law couldn't apply.
Three judges with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. In the ruling, judge Carlos T. Bea wrote "it is not absurd for Congress to want to prevent people within the borders of the United States from plotting to commit murder in a foreign country. That is so even though much of the impetus behind this part of AEDPA was to fight terrorism in the United States."
In his appeal, Chhun also argued that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that he knew his revolutionary activities would lead to murder. He stated his actions may have involved "recklessness," but not "malice aforethought" — because he intended to arrest Hun Sen and limit casualties during his coup.
However, the judges pointed to letters and plans introduced in the trial, including documents written or delivered by Chhun urging CFF members to "shoot to kill (surviving enemies) on the spot" and "send them to ... hell in the near future."
Another argument advanced by Chhun was that America was not "at peace" with Cambodia because of U.S. criticism of Hun Sen in the wake of the 1997 coup. The judges were unmoved.
It is true that the U.S. government didn't aggressively track down the CFF until years after the Phnom Penh attack — and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Adam Piore, in his excellent "The Accidental Terrorist," wrote that defense attorney Richard M. Callahan Jr. described Chhun as "a victim of shifting political winds, a sacrificial lamb offered up in exchange for Cambodia’s cooperation with the war on terror."
The ruling is embedded here: