Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Former Cambodian Freedom Fighters commander dies of COVID-19 while serving life sentence

Police is escorted Richard Kiri Kim, former Commander of Cambodian Freedom Fighters for his hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Picture taken on August 14, 2001. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Police is escorted Richard Kiri Kim, former Commander of Cambodian Freedom Fighters for his hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Picture taken on August 14, 2001. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Richard Kiri Kim, a Cambodian American who was sentenced to life in prison in 2001 for attempting to violently overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, died from COVID-19 the age of 72 on Thursday.   

Kim, who was the former commander of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters — a little known anti-communist militia founded by a Long Beach, California, accountant — was convicted of masterminding a coup attempt and had spent the past two decades of his life in prison in Phnom Penh. 

Nuth Savna, spokesman of the General Department of Prisons said on Friday that Kim died at Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital at around 6 pm on Thursday after contracting COVID-19.

“He died at around 6pm yesterday [Thursday],” Mr Savna said. “We sent this information of his death to [the US Embassy] and his family already.”

Rights advocates have urged prison officials to take stronger protections against the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers, many of which are notoriously overcrowded.

Savna said that he did not know the total number of prisoners who died because of COVID-19 yet, but said he said he believed one or two elderly prisoners had died of the virus.

Am Sam Ath, deputy president of human rights group Licadho, said the group had recorded two COVID-19 deaths among prisoners thus far.

“We are concerned about COVID-19 outbreaks in the prison because they are at high risk of infection,” Sam Ath said. “There is no ability to have social distance and they cannot maintain the necessary level of sanitation like outside the prison, so they do not implement the Health Ministry’s instructions.”

Moreover, he noted, if prisoners are old or suffer from other illnesses, they can rapidly deteriorate if they catch COVID-19, and the typically slow process of treating sick prisoners can worsen the situation.

Sam Ath said that civil society still urges the General Department of Prison to reduce prison overcrowding.

“Reducing the crowding of prisoners in prison is an important measure that can reduce the infection of COVID-19 in the prison, so relevant ministries should review this issue,” he said.

In November 2000, Kim and his ragtag militia launched an attack on three government buildings with rockets, grenades, and assault rifles. The group was arrested after a 90-minute shootout, during which eight people were killed and 14 wounded.

Kim and four others were sentenced to life in prison, two of them in absentia, while 25 others received sentences up to 20 years.

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