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Activist Is Indicted in Coup Plot

A federal grand jury accuses a Long Beach Cambodian American of leading attacks on government buildings in Cambodia in 2000.

June 02, 2005|Jia-Rui Chong and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

A prominent activist in Southern California's Cambodian community has been indicted on charges that he masterminded a 2000 attack on several Cambodian government buildings.

Yasith Chhun, 48, of Long Beach heads the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a group based in Long Beach that is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Chhun and other group members have long been known for their outspoken criticism of Cambodia's Communist government, but some Cambodian Americans said they were stunned that the U.S. government was charging Chhun with orchestrating violence in their homeland.

The indictments, which were returned by a federal grand jury Tuesday in Los Angeles, allege that Chhun formed the group in 1998 when he traveled to the Cambodia-Thailand border and met with Cambodian military personnel who were opposed to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Prosecutors allege that the group was formed "for the purpose of staging a violent overthrow of the Hun Sen regime." Three group members were killed in the attacks and at least eight government officials were injured. Sen was unharmed.

Chhun, a U.S. citizen, is charged with conspiring to kill the prime minister, attack government buildings and direct small-scale attacks, called "popcorns," on karaoke bars and fuel depots. The attacks were designed to " 'awaken' the Cambodian people and enlist their support."

The indictments alleged that Chhun raised money for the overthrow effort in California, including two fundraisers on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Prosecutors contended that Chhun directed group members to buy $16,000 in radio equipment for the attack from the Ham Radio Outlet in Anaheim.

The U.S. attorney's office believes that Chhun raised between $100,000 and $200,000.

Sareth Tath, a friend of Chhun, said he doesn't believe the accusations.

"This guy is a freedom fighter, and he has a lot of support in the community," said Tath, a 55-year-old restaurateur who throws annual fundraising parties for the Freedom Fighters at his Cambodian restaurant.

"I think he's innocent. This has something to do with the Phnom Penh government," said Tath, who spent most of Wednesday trying to find an attorney for Chhun.

If Chhun is convicted, Tath fears that no one will replace Chhun as Southern California's leading critic of the Cambodian government.

"I don't think anyone will stand up like him," Tath said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who has met Chhun and other members of the Freedom Fighters group several times, said he would wait before commenting on the indictment.

"I know they've been proclaiming their willingness to use force to create democracy in Cambodia," he said. "To that degree, we must sympathize with people willing to risk their lives to overthrow a tyrant.

"If no one is going to stand up to a gangster like Hun Sen, he'll have free reign and things never will be changed," Rohrabacher said. "That does not justify any action that would take the life of unarmed people in Cambodia or anywhere else."

Chhun is a controversial figure in Southern California's Cambodian community, which includes many refugees who fled the violent Communist government in the 1970s and 1980s.

Cambodia was run by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge during that period, when experts estimate that one in four Cambodians died of disease, starvation or execution. Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, took power 20 years ago.

James Dok, director of United Cambodian Community, a nonprofit community-based organization, said that although many Southern Californian Cambodians agreed with Chhun's opposition to the Cambodian government, they do not sanction the violence that Chhun is accused of planning.

"They agree politically with him," but violent methods are not popular, Dok said.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Brian Hershman, who is handling the case, said it was unclear if Chhun would face extradition to Cambodia.

According to prosecutors, Chhun orchestrated the attack from the border town of Surin, Thailand. About 100 members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters attacked the Ministry of Defense building and military police headquarters. Hershman said they launched grenades and rockets and fired guns in an attempt to reach the prime minister's palace.

Police stopped the attack before it reached Sen's residence.

The Cambodian government convicted 38 group members, including at least two U.S. citizens, for taking part in the attack, Hershman said. Chhun managed to evade capture but was convicted in absentia, he said.

The federal government began investigating Chhun in September 2001, when FBI agents searched Chhun's office, CCC Professional Accounting Services, in Long Beach. Since then, law enforcement officials have interviewed him at least twice.

"We're dealing with international evidence, so that's certainly part of the reason for the delay," Hershman said.

He said he expects "full cooperation" from the Cambodian government in getting access to witnesses in Cambodia and evidence such as grenades seized in the attack.

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