Services in the Prosecution of a Deadly Plot to Overthrow the Cambodian Government

by Thom Mrozek
Public Affairs Officer
U.S. Attorney's Office, Central District of California

and Richard Lee
former Assistant United States Attorney, Central District of California
U.S. Attorney's Office, Central District of California
Mr. Lee currently serves as a Superior Court Judge in Orange County Lamoreaux Justice Center. 

Yasith Chhun was sentenced in the Central District of California in June 2010 to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for organizing and implementing a deadly plot to violently overthrow the Cambodian government.

Chhun, a United States citizen who resided in Long Beach, California, was president of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), a terrorist organization formed in 1998. At Chhun’s direction, CFF members engaged in a series of small-scale attacks aimed at civilian targets. The attacks injured numerous civilians and killed at least two innocent bystanders, including a 15-year-old boy.

In November 2000, Chhun orchestrated a larger CFF assault on the capital of Phnom Penh. Approximately 200 CFF members, armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades, and rockets, attacked the Ministry of Defense, the Council of Ministers, and a military headquarters facility. Numerous people were killed, including the father of a newborn baby. Over a dozen people sustained severe injuries. The U.S. State Department subsequently condemned the attack.

In 2008, a federal jury convicted Chhun of multiple felonies including conspiring to kill in a foreign country. After prosecutors from the Central District of California and federal agents interviewed witnesses in Cambodia, the FBI, through its legal attaché in Phnom Penh, brought seven Cambodian victims to Los Angeles to testify at Chhun’s trial. One of the victims, a 20-year-old civilian, said on the night of the November 20, 2000 attack, he was guarding a gas station when CFF members armed with machine guns approached. Even though he told the CFF members that he was unarmed, the CFF soldiers shot him and then threw a grenade at him.

Following Chhun’s conviction at trial, prosecutors and agents with the FBI and IRS - Criminal Investigation traveled to Cambodia, where they collected a dozen victim impact statements for the purpose of giving the victims a voice at the upcoming sentencing hearing. The statements from the victims were videotaped while personnel from the United States Embassy translated their testimony. The raw and emotional statements from the victims subsequently were transcribed by personnel in the United States Attorney’s Office. Those transcribed statements, along with video recordings of the victims giving their impact statements, were submitted to the sentencing court and became a focal point in the prosecutors’ sentencing papers seeking a life sentence.

One of the victims, the mother of a then 3-week-old baby, who became a widow when her husband was shot and killed in their bedroom during the November 2000 assault, tearfully told how her husband died in her arms that night trying to protect her and the infant. When asked about the impact of the crime on her family, the widow said: “I want the judge to know about the [separation] of my family . . . That make my son did not know the face of his father and that make the happiest family become the unhappiest family.”