Trial opens for men accused in Cambodian school siege

The alleged leader of a hostage-taking raid on an international school near Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples today denied in court that he killed a Canadian boy, saying he died from a bullet fired from outside the school.

The alleged leader of a hostage-taking raid on an international school near Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples today denied in court that he killed a Canadian boy, saying he died from a bullet fired from outside the school.

Chea Sokhom is one of eight men accused of involvement in the June 16 attack on Siem Reap International School.

Maxim Michalik, a two-year-old boy born in Canada to Slovakian parents, was fatally shot during the six-hour stand-off between authorities and the would-be hostage takers, who had demanded money and weapons in exchange for the children’s release.

“I held him (the boy) in my hands, but I did not shoot to kill him. He was shot dead in the head by an AK-47 bullet fired from outside,” said Chea Sokhom, believed to be in his early 20s.

The boy “died a short moment later,” he said.

He did not say who he thought fired the bullet. Cambodian security forces were surrounding the school at the time.

Judge Plang Chlam challenged Chea Sokhom, pointing out that he had already confessed to police that he killed the boy.

Chea Sokhom claimed police had threatened to beat him if he refused to confess.

The boy’s family had been living in Siem Reap, a bustling Cambodian tourist town near Angkor Wat and other ancient temples, where his father worked at a hotel. The toddler’s body was buried in Slovakia.

Chea Sokhom said he was carrying a handgun when he and three companions armed with knives stormed the school.

The defendants are being tried on charges of premeditated murder, kidnapping, illegal use of weapons and illegal detainment of people for ransom. The charges carry sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison.

Two other alleged conspirators – a man accused of helping buy the gun used in the raid, and a private security guard who allegedly heard Chea Sokhom discuss the planned raid – are on trial for conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, kidnapping, illegal detainment of persons for ransom, and illegal use of weapons.

Two other suspects are former military policemen charged with illegally selling the gun, which was resold to Chea Sokhom.

All eight suspects arrived in handcuffs at the Siem Reap court under heavy security.

The dead boy’s father attended the trial along with a diplomat from the Canadian Embassy in Cambodia.

Chea Sokhom said he used to work as a driver for a South Korean businessman in Siem Reap. He said he had quarrel with the businessman, who had scolded him for showing up late for work.

He said he had decided to take revenge by kidnapping his boss’s children for $1,000 (€848) ransom.

He also said that when that plan did not work out, he had decided on the school raid, in which he and his co-defendants are accused of herding 28 students and two teachers into a classroom and holding them hostage for six hours. It was not clear whether the South Korean man’s children were at the Siem Reap school.

The crisis ended when police surrounded a van in which the four men tried to escape with several children as hostages and a reported 30,000 dollars (€25,435) in ransom money.

Several furious parents, including foreigners, beat the hostage-takers.

Siem Reap, about 145 miles north-west of the capital, Phnom Penh, is home to the famed 9th-14th century Angkor temple complex. The tourist attraction earns millions of dollars a year for the cash-strapped government.

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox