Former Khmer Rouge commander who ‘consigned Briton to killing fields’ formally charged

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The former Khmer Rouge commander suspected of consigning the only Briton murdered in the “killing fields” of Cambodia to his fate has been formally charged by a war crimes tribunal with offences including genocide.

Meas Muth was the naval chief of the fanatical Maoist regime when the wooden junk on which John Dewhirst was travelling strayed into Cambodian waters in 1978.

The young British teacher, who had been working in Japan, and a New Zealand friend were seized in a raid in which a fellow Canadian traveller was killed.

Dewhirst was sent to the notorious Tuol Sleng interrogation centre in Phnom Penh where he was tortured into signing a ludicrous confession that he was a CIA agent and then executed.

War crimes investigators believe that Mr Meas would have been involved in the decision to transfer a high-profile Western prisoner to the near-certain death of Tuol Sleng.

 Skulls of Toul Sleng victims that were recovered from the Killing Fields outside Phnom PenhSkulls of Toul Sleng victims that were recovered from the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh Photo: Andrew Chant

The former cadre has been living for years in western Cambodia, raising crops and insisting that he was not a senior figure in the regime of Pol Pot.

He was charged despite the strong opposition of Hun Sen, the country’s strongman prime minister who was himself a mid-level Khmer Rouge commander before defecting during the group’s reign of terror.

Mr Meas, who is in his 80s, voluntarily surrendered to make a formal appearance before the tribunal which involves both international and Cambodian judges and lawyers.

He was first charged earlier this year by one of the international legal team, but Cambodian officials refused to co-operate and police would not enforce an arrest warrant.

The charges against him include genocide, murder and other crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution and other inhumane acts.

Former Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas MuthFormer Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth Photo: AFP

The Khmer Rouge is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of about 1.7 million Cambodians through execution, starvation and disease as the party leadership pursued a disastrous policy of forcing virtually the entire population into agricultural communes.

But the scale of the horrors was largely unknown to the outside world when the boat called the Foxy Lady inadvertently crossed into Cambodian waters as it cruised the Gulf of Thailand in August 1978.

On board were three Western adventurers, including Dewhirst. He was transferred to Tuol Sleng where the notorious commander Duch remembered him as a “very patient prisoner”.

His ludicrous confession was recovered from a government ministry in 1996. In the document typed in English, he said that his father, a headmaster who was a CIA agent who used his school for cover, recruited him as an American spy when he was just 12.

He explained that he was trained by American spies during his teacher training studies at Loughborough University. Kerry Hamill, a New Zealand sailing companion, was also sent to Tuol Sleng where the men were tortured and killed.

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of the Khmer Rouge's Toul Sleng S-21 detention centre in Phnom PenhChum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of the Khmer Rouge's Toul Sleng S-21 detention centre in Phnom Penh Photo: Andrew Chant

Nearly all the prisoners from Tuol Sleng were taken to the nearby “killing fields” to be executed with a blow to the head from a hoe, although there are unconfirmed reports that one of few Western victims was burned to death.

When Mr Meas was first charged earlier this year, Mr Hamill’s brother Rob welcomed the move.

“For me personally, I feel his role was critical to my brother’s fate,” he said. “I think he would have had the power to let him go in the first instance [to say] ‘This guy’s an adventurer, he’s not threat to the nation, let him go.

“So I put that on him, I rest that burden right in his lap.”

Dewhirst was the only British victim to die in the Khmer Rouge “killing fields”. Another Briton, Malcolm Caldwell, a Left-wing academic and staunch supporter of the regime, was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in Phnom Penh in December 1978 just a few hours after meeting his idol Pol Pot.

Among those expected to be following Muth's trial is Mr Dewhirst's sister, Hilary Holland, a retired solicitor who now lives in Cumbria.

Interviewed by the Daily Telegraph ahead of Duch's trial in 2010, she said she had found it hard forgive her brother's killers, but hoped that the trials would at least educate the country's youth about Cambodia's dark past.

"I hope some light is being shed on how the mass murder happened, how the rest of the world ignored it and allowed it to happen," she said. "It was so similar to what happened under the Nazis," she said.

"Young people in Cambodia don't seem to know about their own history. I think more than anything that is what I wanted to come out of the trial – better knowledge and understanding."

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