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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Surviving Lieutenants Of Cambodia's Pol Pot

The Surviving Lieutenants Of Cambodia's Pol Pot
After Many Delays, a Tribunal Appears Close to Trying Three Khmer Rouge Leaders for Crimes Against Humanity

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007; Page A18

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Pol Pot, the despotic leader of the Khmer Rouge whose brutal rule from 1975 to 1979 left as many as 1.7 million dead in the killing fields, labor camps and prisons of Cambodia, died a free man in 1998. His lieutenants, however, might not be as lucky.

In recent weeks, the three key surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, who have lived largely unhindered but fitful lives in the aftermath of the communist government's collapse, have been detained to face charges of crimes against humanity.

The wave of arrests has reached as high as Nuon Chea, 82, Cambodia's infamous "Brother No. 2," who operated aside Pol Pot as the Khmer Rouge's second-in-command. Nuon Chea had been living out his twilight years in a modest home near Cambodia's border with Thailand. But since his arrest last month, he has been confined to a special judicial compound in a cell about as long and wide as a coffin.

Also seized: Ieng Sary, 82, the Khmer Rouge's foreign minister, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, 75, Pol Pot's sister-in-law. The couple, both French-educated communist revolutionaries, were plucked by police from the tranquility of a prosperous retirement in their three-story villa in Phnom Penh on Nov. 12.

All three are facing what is set to be Cambodia's first series of public trials for the torture, starvation and execution carried out by the Khmer Rouge during its fanatical crusade to create a peasant society free of foreign influences.

The detentions come as a U.N.-backed tribunal made up of international and domestic judges has defied critics inside and outside this nation of 14 million by finally resolving several internal squabbles over legal procedures that had stalled the trials. The court is now able to pursue its mission to deliver long-overdue justice for the countless victims of the Khmer Rouge.

"This process is serious now," said Elizabeth Becker, a German Marshall Fund fellow and author of "When the War Was Over," a history of modern Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. "There is finally a confidence that this thing is going to get to trial."

Such confidence was virtually nonexistent earlier this year. The United Nations was on the verge of pulling out of the tribunal process -- the latest of several efforts since the 1990s to hold trials -- outraged over Cambodia's initial unwillingness to agree to international legal standards. But a compromise agreement reached this summer ultimately led to the recent arrests, officials said.

Without doubt, hurdles remain. The tribunal's $56 million in international funding is expected to run out by the middle of next year, and donor nations will have to deliver a fresh infusion of cash if the trial phase is to move forward. Discord persists between U.N. and Cambodian officials over whether to limit the arrests to about five major Khmer Rouge figures or expand them to a broader pool of suspects. In addition, the tribunal is still reeling from allegations that several of its Cambodian members have accepted bribes or are grossly underqualified for their positions.

But some observers say the recent arrests have demonstrated the political will of Cambodian officials to move forward with the trials, even with many lower-ranking former Khmer Rouge members blended into the current government.

"What was a bumpy road now seems to be moving very quickly," said Joseph A. Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.

"There's been a lot of positive development in the judicial process; it's now clear that the tribunal feels they will have international standards or will walk out," he said. "That's on Tuesday, the tribunal is scheduled to hold its first public legal proceeding involving a major Khmer Rouge figure, a bail hearing for Kaing Guek Eav, the former warden of the S-21 prison. The session will be broadcast live nationwide.

By the time Vietnamese forces liberated the prison in 1979, only seven of 20,000 prisoners were still alive. Kaing, one of the few Khmer Rouge figures who has been previously jailed, was handed over to the tribunal by Cambodian authorities in July. He became the first resident of the newly built prison for Khmer Rouge detainees in the court's special compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

The trials for Kaing and the three newly detained Khmer Rouge leaders are projected to begin within the next six to eight months, said Robert Petit, the tribunal's co-prosecutor.

Few of the trials, however, are likely to be as high profile as Nuon Chea's.

Known as Pol Pot's chief ideologue and henchman, Nuon Chea was driven out of Phnom Penh along with Pol Pot by the Vietnamese in 1979. They took up a guerrilla war in the jungle that ultimately ended in the surrender of the final remnants of the Khmer Rouge in early 1999.

Rejecting international calls for justice, Hun Sen, Cambodia's then and current authoritarian leader and himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge, agreed to forgo prosecution of Nuon Chea and other surrendering Khmer Rouge forces. He famously argued that they should be greeted with flowers in the name of national reconciliation.

After their welcome back into society, Nuon Chea and many other former Khmer Rouge members went into retirement in the western Cambodian jungle town of Pailin. Last year, Nuon Chea gave an interview to the Cambodia Daily newspaper in which he speculated about a possible life sentence -- the toughest penalty he would face if convicted. Nuon Chea, now a slouched old man with a penchant for tinted glasses, had said, "When I die, it will all be finished."
Now behind bars, however, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith have proclaimed their innocence. "We did not have any direct contact with the bases, and we were not aware of what was happening there," Nuon Chea told the tribunal last month, according to court documents.

In a country where the vast majority of the adult population remains scarred by the Khmer Rouge era, the arrests have brought hope.

"We can't allow Cambodia to be a society where the killers of millions go unpunished while chicken thieves are locked behind bars for 10 years," said Theary C. Seng, who spent years in a labor camp as a child after her parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. "I hope this is the start of a process that is going to force us to confront our past. Cambodians need this -- we deserve justice."
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