A former Khmer Rouge commander convicted of the 1994 murders of three Western backpackers but on the run since February was on his way to jail yesterday, a day after his capture, officials said.
Chhouk Rin, 51, was sentenced in absentia in 2002 to a life term by Cambodia's top court after exhausting all avenues of appeal nine months ago, but authorities failed to capture him until Tuesday.
According to Ouch Nuon, a close confidant and ex-neighbor who has provided medical care to Chhouk Rin for many years, he had returned from harvesting rice at a farm he fled to in northwestern Anlong Veng, one of the Khmer Rouge's final strongholds, when authorities surrounded his small home.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that Chhouk Rin was due to arrive at the nation's largest jail Prey Sar, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and notorious for its overcrowded and dismal conditions, some time yesterday.
"Chhouk Rin's case is finished, so there is no need to send him anywhere else, just straight to prison," he said.
The Supreme Court had found that Chhouk Rin ordered a group of his soldiers to ambush a train and snatch Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and French national Jean-Michel Braquet, 27, as they travelled between Phnom Penh and the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Thirteen Cambodians also died in the attack, and the Westerners were held for two months by Khmer Rouge rebels before ransom negotiations failed and they were killed, triggering an international outcry.
The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge movement led by Pol Pot left up to 2 million people dead, and although they were ousted in 1979, elements of the Khmer Rouge fought the government until 1998.
The capture of Chhouk Rin, who has maintained his innocence, came a month after Prime Minister Hun Sen met with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris.
Asked whether Chirac had pressured the premier to make the arrest, Khieu Sopheak said the French leader had raised the issue but that authorities were searching for Chhouk Rin anyway.
"The request from him just coincided with our commitment," he said.
Chhouk Rin's wife Yem Sao, 37, was informed of her husband's arrest on Tuesday and complained that the government had violated the terms of his defection to their ranks in 1994.
"The government promised my husband that if he defected to them, the government would let him live freely. But now we cannot live freely and live peacefully," she said.
She said she last saw her husband in August at their home in Phnom Voar, located just a few kilometers from where the attack on the train occurred in Kampot Province, but was in phone contact.
Neighbor Ouch Nuon last saw him in June but also received regular calls. He said that his friend, who has HIV and tuberculosis, would not live long in jail.
"During a telephone conversation Chhouk Rin told me that he had decided that it was better he die in the jungle than in jail," Ouch Nuon said.
The pursuit of justice for the victims of the attack through the Cambodian courts was a long and traumatic wrangle. Two other former Khmer Rouge members, Nuon Paet and Sam Bith, are serving life sentences for the killings after exhausting their appeals.