Amid Prisons Outbreak, Jailed ‘Freedom Fighter’ Dies of Covid-19

3 min read
The gates of Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1 in Phnom Penh. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)

Cambodian Freedom Fighters commander Richard Kiri Kim, jailed for life for leading an armed attack on government buildings in 2000, died of Covid-19 on Thursday, a prisons official said.

Nuth Savna, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s prisons department, said on Friday that Kiri Kim, a Cambodian-American, died aged 72 at the Khmer-Soviet hospital after he was taken there from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison for Covid-19 treatment.

“He was a gentle guy,” Savna said. “Our officials liked him so much. He never caused any difficulties for our officials. He was living with maturity in [prison]. We liked him, honestly.”

Kiri Kim likely caught Covid-19 one to two weeks ago amid Prey Sar’s outbreak, Savna said. He was initially sent to Khmer-Soviet, but returned to the prison’s health center as the hospital thought he would get more attentive care there. But his condition deteriorated and Kiri Kim was sent back to Khmer-Soviet, Savna said.

His family and the U.S. Embassy have been informed of his death, and his body is being handled by appropriate authorities, he said. He did not know whether Kiri Kim had been vaccinated.

“He was said to have fluctuating health. His health was not the same as younger people,” Savna said, though he did not know whether Kiri Kim had other illnesses.

Savna said more than 11,000 prisoners have been vaccinated amid a nationwide Covid-19 outbreak in prisons.

Current vaccinations have been at Prey Sar’s Correctional Centers I and II, Phnom Penh’s PJ prison and the Preah Sihanouk provincial prison. The prisons department has now received 6,700 doses of AstraZeneca to be used in the provincial prisons of Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Speu, Kampot, Kandal and Svay Rieng, he said. Kampot has not announced any Covid-19 cases, but women prisoners from Preah Sihanouk were transferred there to make space.

Those vaccinations will start next week, Savna said.

“They are happy to be vaccinated so they stood in line and smiled. They cooperated well with our officials. No one caused any trouble,” he said.

Kiri Kim, a former NGO worker, led the Cambodian Freedom Fighters’ attack on government buildings in 2000.

A gun battle erupted around 1:30 a.m. on November 24, with 20 to 30 gunmen firing at the Council of Ministers, Defense Ministry and TV3 and throwing a grenade at a Total gas station, according to a Phnom Penh Post report at the time. In a simultaneous attack, about 10 gunmen fired rockets at a nearby military base. Eight died in the fighting. Kiri Kim was arrested the following day at Siem Reap airport while trying to board a plane to Bangkok.

His lawyer tried to plead that Kiri Kim was insane for believing that he was a freedom fighter. “He still thinks he is a commander. But there is no way. He has no capacity to be a commander. He is not a soldier. It’s almost like he’s in a dream,” the lawyer, David Chaniwa, told the Cambodia Daily in 2000.

He was sentenced to life in prison in June 2001 alongside 29 others, who received sentences ranging from three years to life in jail.

The group’s leader, Chhun Yasith, a tax accountant, was sentenced to life imprisonment in California in 2010.

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