LOS ANGELES – LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California accountant was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison in Los Angeles for orchestrating a failed attempt to overthrow the Cambodian government in 2000.
Yasith Chhun, 53, was found guilty in 2008 of three counts of conspiracy and one count of engaging in a military expedition against a nation with which the United States is at peace.
Yasith Chhun, a naturalized U.S. citizen who fled Cambodia as a refugee in 1982, grew frustrated with the lack of free elections under what he viewed as the oppressive regime of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot, said Yasith Chhun's attorney, Richard Callahan.
"He saw Hun Sen as on an even par with Pol Pot," Callahan said.
Yasith Chhun also wanted to avenge the death of his father, who was beheaded by Khmer Rouge soldiers as Yasith Chhun looked on.
Yasith Chhun was found guilty after a two-week trial, during which prosecutors said he had planned "Operation Volcano" to overthrow Hun Sen's government in 2000. Callahan said Yasith Chhun would appeal.
The Cambodian government welcomed the verdict Wednesday.
"He is a terrorist and we welcome the decision taken by the U.S. court to sentence him to life in prison," Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told journalists in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. "Terrorism is the main threat to human beings, not only in the United States but also in Cambodia."
"We're here because a jury found that the defendant deliberately tried to kill other human beings," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lamar Baker.
Yasith Chhun headed a group known as the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, which accused Hun Sen of being a dictator and helping rig elections so he could stay in power.
Prosecutors said Yasith Chhun had planned the operation for two years and had traveled to the region to assemble a rebel force. He raised money by holding fundraisers at the Queen Mary, which is permanently docked in Long Beach.
Prosecutors also believe Yasith Chhun was behind a February 1999 bombing of a bar in Cambodia that injured several people.
"Operation Volcano" was launched in November 2000 at the direction of Yasith Chhun, who was across the border in Thailand.
About 200 rebel troops showed up to fight, and they were quickly subdued after attacking various government buildings in Phnom Penh.
In a rambling statement before his sentencing, Yasith Chhun told the judge that he started his movement as a nonviolent protester.
"The result is, nothing happened," he said, adding that his approach changed as he saw Hun Sen's troops "kill more people."
Callahan said the prosecution of Yasith Chhun was politically motivated because the U.S., which at the time was expanding its war on terror, was seeking international cooperation from countries in Southeast Asia.
"He was a sacrificial lamb to make sure everything went well in Southeast Asia," Callahan said. "Otherwise, the story doesn't make sense."