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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Khmer Rouge No. 2 says regime acted for Cambodians

This combination of three photos released by Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, shows from left to right: Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and the No. 2 leader, Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, and Khieu Samphan,f ormer Khmer Rouge head of state, during a trial for former Khmer Rouge top leaders, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. The three top Khmer Rouge leaders accused of orchestrating Cambodia's "killing fields" went on trial Monday before a U.N.-backed tribunal more than three decades after some of the 20th century's worst atrocities. (AP Photo/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Mark Peters) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

By SOPHENG CHEANG, Associated Press 

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia's "killing fields" insisted Tuesday he carried out its policies for the sake of Cambodians and to protect the country from invaders.

The communist movement's chief ideologist did not directly respond to the horrors that prosecutors described a day earlier at the start of the U.N.-backed tribunal for him and two other top Khmer Rouge leaders.

Instead, Nuon Chea gave a political history of the movement and Cambodia, insisted his role was patriotic, and blamed neighboring Vietnam for much of the country's troubles.

"I had to leave my family behind to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the thieves who wish to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the Earth," Nuon Chea said in his first public comments at the trial.

"We wanted to free Cambodia from being a servant of other countries, and we wanted to build Cambodia as a society that is clean and independent, without any killing of people or genocide," he said.

The tribunal is seeking justice on behalf of the 1.7 million people — as much as a quarter of Cambodia's then-population — estimated to have died from executions, starvation, disease and overwork when the Khmer Rouge held power in 1975-79.

The three most senior surviving leaders — Nuon Chea, 85; former head of state Khieu Samphan, 80; and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 86 — are charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. They have long denied blame.

Nuon Chea was the Khmer Rouge's second-highest leader after Pol Pot, who died in 1998 in a jungle while a prisoner of his own comrades. Prosecutors earlier Tuesday said the defendants cannot blame Pol Pot alone for the atrocities that took place.

Prosecutor Andrew Cayley said that like Pol Pot, the defendants exercised life-and-death authority over Cambodia while in power.

"The accused cannot credibly claim they did not know and had no control over the crimes that occurred," he said.

Prosecutors have described a litany of horrors, large and small, saying the Khmer Rouge sought to crush not just all its enemies, but seemingly, the human spirit.

Khmer Rouge rule began April 17, 1975, when it captured Phnom Penh to end a bitter five-year civil war and immediately forced the evacuation of the capital, where 1 million people had sheltered. The country was almost sealed from the outside world and most people were forced to work on giant rural communes as the Khmer Rouge attempted to create a pure agrarian socialist society.

People were deprived of any private life, and forced marriages took the place of love. Intellectuals, entrepreneurs and anyone considered a threat were imprisoned, tortured and often executed in so-called "killing fields."

Economic and social disaster ensued, but the failures only fed the group's paranoia, and suspected traitors were hunted down, only plunging the country further into chaos.

Vietnam, whose border suffered bloody attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers, sponsored a resistance movement and invaded, ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installing a client regime.

Nuon Chea did little to directly address the allegations of atrocities when he spoke for about an hour and a half Tuesday in time allotted for defense rebuttals of the prosecutors' statements.

He told the tribunal he has waited a long time to explain "a proper history" of Cambodia to its people and thanked Cambodian heroes who devoted their life to defending the country.

Nuon Chea's co-defendants were very much the public face of the Khmer Rouge as they sought diplomatic support after being ousted. He was more secretive but became more familiar last year with the release of a documentary, "Enemies of the People."

I have always said I made mistakes. I am regretful and I have remorse. I am sorry for our regime. I am sorry," Nuon Chea told Cambodian filmmaker Thet Sambath.

But he was clear the Khmer Rouge leaders had seen their primary duty as safeguarding the revolution and said suspected traitors were killed because they "were enemies of the people."

In court Tuesday, Nuon Chea reiterated the Khmer Rouge's longstanding position that concern about Vietnamese intentions contributed to the Khmer Rouge's decision to forcibly evacuate Phnom Penh in 1975.

The capital's evacuation is expected to be a focus of the current trial, as the tribunal grouped similar charges together to speed the process. Allegations involving the forced movement of people and crimes against humanity are being handled now, with genocide, torture and other charges being decided later.

Even streamlined, the proceedings are likely to be lengthy. After prosecution and defense statements, actual testimony is to begin Dec. 5.

"Here in Cambodia, a unique opportunity has been given ... to set a powerful example, and to send a strong warning from the past to the future so that human beings everywhere can rightfully expect to live in peace under the law," Cayley said.

The defendants are old and infirm, and there are fears they won't live long enough for justice to be achieved. A fourth defendant, the Khmer Rouge's social affairs minister, was ruled unfit to stand trial because of Alzheimer's disease.

Judge Nil Nonn denied a second request Tuesday for defendant Ieng Sary to follow the proceedings from another room to ease his physical burden. The judge said it was important for all the defendants to be present for the prosecution's statement.

Some of those attending the trial have provided their own vignettes of the terror: a commune chief who said he killed others because otherwise he would have been killed himself; a man who lost four siblings and law school and police academy students born long after the regime ended.

Two-thirds of Cambodians today were not yet born when the communist group's reign of terror ended in 1979.

The tribunal, which was established in 2006, has tried just one case, convicting former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses. His sentence was reduced to 19 years due to time served and other technicalities.

That case is seen as much simpler than the broader current case against three higher-ranked regime leaders. Kaing Guek Eav confessed and was implicated by meticulously kept prison records.

The case has been overshadowed in the past year by claims that political interference would keep the tribunal from pursuing more suspects. Prime Minister Hun Sen has publicly declared he is against further trials, which he claimed could destabilize the country. More prosecutions could target political allies who used to be with the Khmer Rouge — as he was himself, before defecting.
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Babies for Sale: Looking at the Adoption Industry in Guatemala

Photo:  Erin Siegal
 Last year, American families adopted more than 11,000 children from abroad. More than half came from either China or Ethiopia; but as recently as 2007, the country that sent the most children to the U.S. was the Central American nation of Guatemala. Between 1999 and 2010, more than 26,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by U.S. parents.

Today, however, an advisory on the State Department’s website warns: “The United States is not currently processing adoptions from Cambodia or Guatemala.”

What happened? The answer─which involves cross-border corruption, kidnapping and finally a crackdown─is revealed in Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child and a Cross-Border Search for the Truth, a new book by investigative journalist Erin Siegal.

Siegal began looking into Guatemalan adoptions when she was a fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. After emailing a woman who had posted about problems with an adoption on a listserv, Siegal found herself thrown into an opaque world of child-trafficking, unscrupulous attorneys and American parents left in the dark about the circumstances that brought their new sons and daughters to their homes.

The Crime Report spoke with Siegal from her home in Mexico.
The Crime Report: You describe corruption at every turn in the adoption industry in Guatemala, from fake DNA test results and forged paperwork to bribery and outright kidnapping. Were you surprised to learn the scope of the illegality?

Erin Siegal: I don’t know if I can say I was surprised because before I got into this investigation I read Francisco Goldman’s classic Guatemalan book, The Art of Political Murder. The book lays out corruption in the judicial system and corruption within the Guatemalan government, so it was really instrumental in my thinking about how Guatemala works, as opposed to a place like the United States.

I went into this investigation with a base level of understanding around general corruption. It’s not just adoptions. In Guatemala you can bribe anyone for anything. You can arrange a hit, a murder, for practically the price of a Happy Meal. So when I started learning about everything that happens in adoptions, I think the bigger surprise was that American adoptive parents were so misinformed and had so little access to true information. Who would be telling them what was really going on? There was no incentive for anyone to do that in most cases.

TCR: If people are willing to throw $20,000 or $30,000 at an industry like that, can anything really be done to make it more legitimate?

ES: That’s the big question. In the Guatemalan adoption industry there were so many intermediaries. American money would initially be handed off to an adoption agency [in the U.S.] that was accredited by a state licensing agency, but after that...they didn’t know [where it went]... And that’s the crux of the problem: there’s no oversight in countries that haven’t signed the Hague Convention treaty.

TCR: Tell me about the Hague Convention.

ES: The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption sets up guidelines for countries that send children and that receive children. The Hague suggests we need to track money in adoptions, people need to be accountable for who they work with, and there needs to be very strict record keeping. And that’s all good and wonderful, but it does have a major failing, which is that adoption agencies that don’t pass Hague accreditation here in the U.S. are still allowed to operate; they just can’t operate in Hague signatory countries. It’s a pretty glaring hole.

TCR: What role did American adoption agencies play in perpetuating corruption in the system of Guatemalan adoptions?

ES: There were no incentives for American agents to do any kind of backgrounding on the people that they worked with. In a case like Celebrate Children International (CCI), the agency in my book, they repeatedly worked with folks that engaged in some pretty shady practices. CCI clients told me that they kind of understood that things weren’t exactly on the up and up—they had a lot of suspicions but for them it was impossible to find out the truth. Whereas you’d think the [agency itself] would have a responsibility to know what their partners were doing, and know where the children they were placing actually came from.

Yet if you look at the local and state statutes, nothing in the code mandates that an adoption agency working internationally has to know where the children they place are coming from. The children just have to be deemed legally adoptable by the other country. And obviously in a place like Guatemala, that can happen in many different ways that aren’t exactly legitimate.

TCR: Have any American adoption agents been indicted for their practices?

ES: There was actually a really high profile case that happened a couple years ago with a woman named Lauryn Galindo who was basically the go-to person for Cambodian adoptions. She had handled something like 700 adoptions, including for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. She was convicted in U.S. court on federal charges of money laundering and visa fraud. I believe [she’s] free today. The federal government has had some luck in going after folks for immigration fraud. But it hasn’t happened a lot.

Another big case was the Mary Bonn case. She is a Florida woman who smuggled a Guatemalan girl into the U.S. using fake documents. There was a big investigation and they eventually found the child in her house.

TCR: You write that as far back as 1990, U.S. embassy officials in Guatemala were warning the U.S. government that adoptions from Guatemala often involved fraud, but it wasn’t until the end of 2007 that adoptions between the two countries stopped. Why was this allowed to go on so long?

ES: There are a lot of forces at play in the Guatemalan adoption industry. The adoption lobby in Guatemala and the U.S. was pretty powerful. In such a poor country, the folks that were the puppeteers of the industry were private lawyers, and lawyers in Guatemala are in general upper class citizens. They have political clout… Guatemala tried to pass reform efforts for a while and at every turn reform efforts failed.

In the U.S., adoption lobbying groups like the Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS) were invited to steer Congress on adoption issues. They would provide data at Congressional hearings. It’s kind of tricky, because in the early 2000s and up until a couple of years ago, their core constituency, their membership, was mostly made up of  adoption agencies who had a financial interest in maintaining a flow of children from countries like Guatemala. So there wasn’t really an incentive for things to change.

And the embassy’s role isn’t to be a regulator. The embassy’s role is to oversee American interests.  So if a large part of American interest in the country is in adopting, they’re there to facilitate things—and to make sure they don’t get caught up in child trafficking scandals.

TCR: When did adoptions between Guatemala and the U.S. stop?

ES: December 31, 2007. It wasn’t an American decision. It was Guatemala’s decision to ratify the Hague. But the change only related to new adoptions, so the rules took effect and around 3,000 kids were caught in limbo. And today, there are still 300 adoptions that are in progress.

TCT: There are families in the U.S. who began the adoption process in 2007 and they’re still waiting?

ES: Yes. When Guatemala ratified the Hague, regulations were put in place that allowed these cases to move forward under transition rules. They weren’t necessarily Hague-compliant cases, but they weren’t being processed under the old system—they were in between… In 2010, the government released a report that was an analysis of how the cases were processed, and they found that in 60 percent of the cases there were “irregularities”–which is a catch-all phrase attached to an adoption case that has some kind of fraud. Maybe the paperwork isn’t exactly correct, or the paperwork is doctored, or something as egregious as alleged kidnapping.

That number was pretty staggering to people who read the report… American pressure to get those cases moved throughout this process has been really enormous. You have really concerned adoptive parents, who are concerned for good reason. They feel like they love the kids they’re going to adopt and they want the best for them; they don’t want them stuck in orphanages. So they write to their Senators and their Representatives and those politicians put pressure on the embassy in Guatemala to try to get the cases moving. It’s a really delicate diplomatic issue because Guatemalan prosecutors are trying to unravel which cases are legitimate and where each of these children is from. That takes a lot of energy and resources to do that they don’t necessarily have.

A new human trafficking unit was actually created in Guatemala’s Ministerio P├║blico in November 2007, and most of their caseload even today is dealing with adoption. It’s a very slow process, and really difficult situation because these kids are stuck in purgatory and there’s no easy way out.

TCR: Are there other countries that American parents should be wary of adopting from?

ES: Ethiopia has sort of filled the void left by Guatemala in fulfilling the demand for adoptable children. The numbers there have skyrocketed over the past decade. It’s the same thing that happened in Guatemala, Cambodia and Vietnam. When adoption economies begin to snowball in a sending country, the demand [in the U.S.] snowballs. In Ethiopia, orphanages open and immediately sign contracts with America agencies. Getting a child from Ethiopia is relatively fast and simple compared to lots of countries–especially countries like Russia that have lots of regulation now, and where the adoption process can take years. Adopting from Ethiopia, on the other hand, can take as little as six to eight months.

Julia Dahl, former deputy managing editor of The Crime Report, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She currently writes for Crimesider,'s crime blog. You can read her other articles at She welcomes comments from readers. Read more!