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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Attacks on Khmer Rouge were backpacker's death warrant, say former diplomat

Hostage … David Wilson pleaded for a ransom to be paid.

A former diplomat says the failure of the Australian government to halt Cambodian military attacks on a Khmer Rouge base effectively ''issued death warrants'' for kidnapped Australian backpacker David Wilson and his two travelling companions in 1994.

Alastair Gaisford, a diplomat at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh at the time, says Australia, Britain and France ''clearly abrogated their consular duties to their own hostage citizens'' by ''failing to act immediately and directly against, if only to postpone'' the attacks until the hostages could be released after the paying of a ransom.

Australia was gripped by the plight of Mr Wilson when he and his two companions were kidnapped from a train in southern Cambodia only three months after Khmer Rouge guerillas had murdered Australian cafe owner Kellie-Anne Wilkinson and her two British travelling companions.

From his mountain prison, Mr Wilson sent out videos and letters pleading for a ransom to be paid as the Australian government's handling of the case came under severe criticism in Australia.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry, Mr Gaisford, a controversial former whistleblower in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said a Cambodian army general told him in early August 1994: ''We're here to take the mountain. The big noses [foreign hostages] are of no consequence [to us].''

Mr Wilson, Englishman Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet were murdered in early September 1994 after negotiations between the Cambodian government and their Khmer Rouge captors broke down.

In his submission to the Senate inquiry into the government's response to the kidnapping of Australians overseas, Mr Gaisford, who retired in 2001, said the government secretly agreed to the Cambodian government paying a $US150,000 ransom for Mr Wilson and his companions while publicly reiterating its ''no negotiation, no ransom'' hostage policy.

Mr Gaisford said the Cambodian co-prime minister at the time, Hun Sen, intervened militarily to attack the Khmer Rouge, breaking an agreement with Australia, France and Britain ''not to act adversely without consultation or prior consent''.

Mr Gaisford said Australian diplomats and consular officials were told to treat the families of hostages overseas as a ''problem'' who should be managed by fear and not be kept informed.

One of his former bosses at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh told him to treat Mr Wilson's family ''as mushrooms'' to be ''kept in the dark'' as much as possible, Mr Gaisford said.

''We were also [told] to keep them 'too frightened' to travel to Cambodia or if they did come, then keep them too scared to travel outside the capital, where we could manage them,'' he said.

Mr Gaisford is expected to testify into an inquest in Melbourne into Mr Wilson's death, which has resumed after a 13-year adjournment.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the policy not to pay ransoms underpinned its response to the few kidnappings of Australians that have occurred in the past decade.

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