Courting the Killing Fields

ASIAWATCH — After almost 18 months of controversy and behind the scenes legal manoeuvring, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has swung back to life with a second trial and fresh revelations surrounding alleged atrocities committed by the ultra-Maoists. Luke Hunt reports.

In the dock were party ideologue Nuon Chea, 85, known as Brother Number Two; former head of state Khieu Samphan, 80; and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, 86.

The three are the last survivors of the Khmer Rouge Standing Committee that wrote and deployed government policy between April, 1975, and January, 1979, and has been the target of tribunal investigators.

In the packed public gallery of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), people wept and some walked out in anger as co-prosecutors Chea Leang and Andrew Cayley outlined their opening arguments from behind bulletproof glass.

“One in four Cambodians perished under Democratic Kampuchea … a loss of life unknown to any nation since the slaughter of all adult men and the enslavement of the women and children of the island of Milos by the Athenian state 2,400 years ago,” Mr Cayley said.

“When judged in relative terms by the proportion of a national population who died or were murdered, the scope of the human catastrophe unleashed by these accused on this country has no parallel in the modern era.”

Many of the crimes were aired in Case 001, which resulted in the ECCC’s first conviction in July of last year, registered against Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, commandant of the S21 torture and extermination centre, for crimes against humanity.

But along with details involving mass murders, last week’s opening arguments brought further tales of torture, grisly accounts of cannibalism, bizarre sexual practices associated with forced marriages and the carnage committed in Kampong Chhnang province where a massive airport was under construction for the Chinese military.

One prisoner had his feet nailed to a board and was ordered to sing while he was beaten. Pincers were used to pull nails, noses and ear lobes. At Sre Ambel, labourers toiled in fields until their legs were eaten away by salt water. Children were swung by the feet and their heads smashed into a tamarind tree.

At Trapeang Thmar dam site, menstruating women were denied water for washing and trailed by clouds of flies, prisoners were forced to defecate in helmets that doubled as food bowls. In a video clip another woman spoke of how “they boiled human excrement to make fertiliser and they forced me to taste it”.

Others had their gall bladders removed which were then taken to the kitchen. One man was stripped naked to the waist and held by two Khmer Rouge soldiers while a third used a knife to rip open his stomach. The man’s entrails were ripped out and his liver removed while he was still alive.

Mr Cayley asked the court to ensure its judgement would be decisive, saying the former leaders had robbed the country of decades of prosperity and left gaping holes in every Cambodian family.

The alleged crimes _ including, genocide, murder and torture _ stem from the deaths of 1.7 million to 2.2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, under Pol Pot’s rule. About 800,000 are thought to have died violently, the rest through malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.

The nightmare began within hours of the Khmer Rouge seizing control of Phnom Penh and forcing the evacuation of the capital and all urban centres amid fears by a paranoid hierarchy that the cities had become nerve centres for enemies of the movement.

“There are few enemies in rural areas, and many enemies in the cities,” Mr Cayley quoted Nuon Chea as saying. “The evacuation was done to move the people to the countryside and smash enemy agents.”

Once residents were sent to the rural areas, they were enslaved along with the rest of the population in vast agricultural cooperatives, a system devised in 1972.

The court was told how the likes of Nuon Chea sought to strip Cambodians of their belongings after money and markets were abandoned, and to cripple their spirits.

The latter led to bizarre made-up rituals involving forced marriages.

Speaking outside the court, Helen Jarvis _ a senior adviser to the Cambodian government and a former spokeswoman for the ECCC _ noted the Khmer Rouge had “hoodwinked the world” over the last three decades with its puritanical propaganda regarding morality and sex.

Instead, prosecutors told how mass marriages were enforced between strangers. One ceremony involved men and women being forced to line up facing each other, the lights were turned off and they were told to walk towards each other and hold out their hands.

They were forced to marry whoever they touched. Women who denied their husbands conjugal rights were shot. Desired young girls and women were given as trophy brides to favoured cadre and troops who had been handicapped in battle. Muslims were forced to marry non-Muslims.

Couples who fell in love illicitly were executed.

There were reportedly hundreds of thousands of forced marriages. The court was told how the practice was dictated by Pol Pot and his lieutenants as a means of orchestrating total control by wiping out all vestiges of Khmer culture.

Evidence to be presented at the trial was derived from 30 crime scenes that were culled out of 196 security centres, 19,000 mass graves and construction sites, including a massive airstrip funded by and built for the Chinese government, long-time supporters of the Khmer Rouge.

As many as 30,000 people were marched to the site and ordered to work.

Conditions were so bad that many opted for suicide, leaping under passing trucks, or killing themselves by hanging, poisoning or drowning. The court was told how every member of the Standing Committee had visited the site. Among them was Khieu Samphan, who urged labourers to work harder.

Mr Cayley said paranoia would eventually overwhelm the leadership, leading to purges and the decimation of their own ranks with tens of thousands dispatched to the security centres, and this had contributed to the downfall of the revolution.

This was highlighted in 86 publications printed by the cadres that mentioned the words enemy, enemies or traitor more than 4,700 times, twice every page on average.

While the prosecution offered fresh insights into what happened in Cambodia all those years ago, the defence fell back on old arguments.

Inside the tribunal, Khieu Samphan appeared upset at times and Ieng Sary showed signs of disbelief as they listened to allegations of how they had systematically turned Cambodia into a country of unpaid slaves through their unrealistic and irrational policies.

In response, Nuon Chea who sat motionless, dismissed the opening argument as not true before launching into an unrepentant tirade of communist cliches, blaming US bombings and Vietnamese designs on Cambodia for policies that arose as they came to power.

He said Vietnam intended to “swallow Cambodia and rip Cambodia of her ethnic race”.

He said Cambodian problems were exacerbated by the 1970 coup which ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installed US-friendly Lon Nol as leader, which resulted in millions of homeless people and enormous shortages of food and medicine while foreign infiltrators were sabotaging the country.

Nuon Chea did not mention any of the victims who suffered under Khmer Rouge rule. He simply added in regard to the events that led to Pol Pot coming to power: “The Lon Nol clique could not control this situation at all”.

That line was echoed by Khieu Samphan, who said the prosecution had invented fairy tales and argued they were relying too heavily on uncorroborated reports from journalists at that time, adding he never wielded any real power and had only ever spoken twice at Standing Committee meetings.

Ieng Sary again argued a pardon granted by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1996 as part of a peace deal that ended the civil war two years later meant that he should not face charges due to double jeopardy. His wife Ieng Thirith is undergoing further psychiatric examinations after being ruled unfit to stand trial.

For decades Khmer Rouge apologists have argued that senior leaders of the regime were far removed from the extraordinary slaughter that took place under their rule.

Instead, communist sympathisers have claimed lower ranks got carried away with a revolutionary zeal that was imposed by a puritanical leadership that preached conservative Khmer values.

Mr Cayley said all three defendants had regularly visited the giant construction sites and “were well aware of the inhumane conditions at these worksites”.

The ECCC, often described as the most complex war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg in the aftermath of World War II, has also had its critics.

Much of the frustration centres on Case 003 and 004.

The Open Society Justice Initiative, funded by Wall Street financier George Soros, wants the UN to establish an inquiry into allegations of judicial misconduct involving another five Khmer Rouge figures.

Few of the ECCC’s detractors had much to do with Cambodia before Case 001 got underway, yet they often insist they know best for a tribunal dedicated to finding responsibility for an extraordinary slaughter that took place over a period of less than four years amid a war that lasted more than three decades.

Significant changes, designed to speed up the trial process amid concerns the tribunal has taken far too long, have been made. Case 002 is to be split into several mini-trials, designed to make the proceedings more manageable, with the first trial to form some of the basis of subsequent trials.

As such its focus is crimes against humanity and is expected to continue for at least a year.

This article first appeared in Spectrum magazine, published by the Sunday Bangkok Post. 


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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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