LOS ANGELES — A California accountant was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday in Los Angeles for orchestrating a failed attempt to overthrow the Cambodian government in 2000.
Yasith Chhun, 53, of Long Beach, 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.
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 Chhun's attorney, Richard Callahan.
"He saw Hun Sen as on an even par with Pol Pot," Callahan said.
Chhun also wanted to avenge the death of his father, who was beheaded by Khmer Rouge soldiers as Chhun looked on.
Chhun was found guilty after a two-week trial, during which prosecutors said he had planned "Operation Volcano" to Sen's government.
"We're here because a jury found that the defendant deliberately tried to kill other human beings," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lamar Baker.
Chhun headed a group known as the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, which accused Sen of being a dictator and helping rig elections so he could stay in power.
Prosecutors said 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 Chhun was behind a February 1999 bombing of a bar in Cambodia that injured several people.
"Operation Volcano" was launched on Thanksgiving 2000 at the direction of 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 the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
In a rambling statement before his sentencing, Chhun told the judge that he started his movement as a nonviolent protester.
"The result is, nothing happened," Chhun said, adding that his approach changed as he saw Sen's troops "kill more people."
Callahan said the prosecution of 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."