Four jailed for 'cold-blooded' murder of British mine clearer

Christopher Howes

Murdered: Christopher Howes was shot after being captured by guerillas while working for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in 1996

Four former Khmer Rouge rebels have been sent to jail for up to 20 years for the cold-blooded murder of British mine-clearing expert Christopher Howes in the jungles of Cambodia.

The convicted men stood ashen faced as the judge in the court in Phnom Penh ordered that three of the murderous team be locked away for 20 years while a fourth who was involved in abducting 37-year-old Mr Howes was sentenced to 10 years.

The court had been told that Mr Howes bravely turned down the chance of leaving the rebels' jungle encampment to seek a ransom for other hostages, electing to remain with the captives.

Shortly afterwards he was provided with a last meal of fruit, then murdered with a bullet in his forehead.

The jail sentences, which could see at least two of the former rebels dying in jail because of their age, will be greeted with satisfaction by Mr Howes' ailing 85-year-old father Roy, who lives in Backwell, near Bristol.

'These are wicked, wicked, people,' he said when the trial began and the first details of Mr Howes' execution became known. 'They should go to prison for ever if found guilty.

Khem Ngun

Jailed: Guerrilla commander Khem Ngun ordered a soldier to shoot Christopher Howes in the head

'These people have wrecked my family. The pain is permanently with us. I'm relieved that this trial is taking place after so long and I hope justice will be done.'

It was while Mr Howes and his Cambodian interpreter Huon Hourth were working to clear an area of land near the famous Angkor Wat temple in 1996 that they and 30 other de-miners were surrounded by rebels of notorious Pol Pot's army and marched off into the jungle at gunpoint.

They were taken to Pol Pot's headquarters in Anglong Veng, in the north of Cambodia, where Mr Howes was offered the chance to leave to fetch ransom money. He refused, deciding to remain with the other hostages to try to negotiate their release.

Put Lim

Cold-blooded: Put Lim was one of four former Khmer Rouge rebels to be sentenced to 20 years in prison

In a chilling reconstruction of his last minutes, one of the defendants, Loch Mao, said in a statement read to the court that his death was instantaneous.

He had been offered a last feast of apples and durian, a tropical fruit well-known for its pungent aroma, before a guerrilla commander named Khem Tem ordered a soldier named Nget Rim to shoot him in the head.

'Howes fell backwards. It was one single shot,' said Loch Mao. 'Khem Tem then ordered me to fire more shots. I walked up with the intention of firing a shot into his chest, but Khem Ngun (another commander) yelled "That's enough - he's already dead."'

Later Mr Howes' body was dragged to a clearing and cremated on a pile of wood soaked in diesel oil.

For two years it was not known if Mr Howes was still alive but then Scotland Yard police officers who travelled to Cambodia to investigate his disappearance learned through various sources that he had been killed three days after his abduction.

When Cambodians learned of Mr Howes' courage in refusing to leave the other captives, he was hailed a hero and a street in Phnom Penh was named after him.

Now, just a few miles away from that street, in a steamy courtroom, justice has finally caught up with those involved in his brutal murder.

Khem Ngun, Loch Mao and Put Lim who were all present when Mr Howes was executed were each sentenced to 20 years in prison. Sin Dorn, who was involved in his abduction, received 10 years in jail.

Khem Tem, who ordered the execution had died in a road accident in neighbouring Thailand and Nget Rim, who pulled the shot the British mine-clearer was, ironically, himself killed by a landmine in 2004.