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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer Rouge deny killer role

Khmer Rouge deny killer role

F aced with new evidence of his complicity in crimes against humanity, former Brother

number two Nuon Chea dismisses the allegations as "fabricated", declares

he has no regrets for fulfilling his "duty for the nation", and asks with

a laugh: "Do I look like a killer?"

Nuon Chea, one of seven former high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials singled out in

a new report as prime candidates for prosecution for crimes against humanity, greeted

the news in a manner typical of former top KR - total denial.

"Any people can produce such documents afterwards [to defame the Khmer Rouge],"

argued Nuon Chea when excerpts of documents quoted in the report were read to him.

"I admit some people were killed, but not millions. They died from starvation

and illness."

He said that the Khmer Rouge did not have a policy to kill the people but their goal

was "to give rice three times a day and dessert once a week".

Two others identified in the report, former Zone Secretary Ke Pauk and army divisional

commander Meas Muth, echoed Chea's denials of personal responsibility for torture

and killings committed during the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime.

Given a copy of the report, "Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability

for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge", the Post tried to interview the men listed

by the authors as responsible for crimes against humanity.

Nuon Chea received the Post in his house in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of

Pailin, and spoke at length but admitted nothing.

In Siem Reap, Ke Pauk angrily denounced the report as "fiction", while

Meas Muth in Phnom Penh said that "low-ranking officials" like him were

not to blame.

Of the other four subjects of the report, former Democratic Kampuchea Head of State

Khieu Samphan spoke to the Post in Pailin but insisted his comments were off-the-record;

former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ieng Sary declined an interview request claiming

a visit to hospital; army divisional commander Sou Meth could not be contacted for

comment; and, lastly, former head of the Soutwest Zone and central committee member

Ta Mok is inaccessible in prison.

Based on documents discovered over the last three years by the Documentation Center

of Cambodia, Cambodia researcher Steve Heder and international lawyer Brian Tittemore,

dissect the role that each of the seven men played in the implementation of the policies

of mass killings decided by the Khmer Rouge. For each individual a legal analysis

is drawn from the evidence to assess their responsibility in ordering the atrocities.

In a press conference held in Washington to launch the report, Steve Heder said that

the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge "resulted from the decisions [the KR]

made to pursue their chosen political, economic and military goals by killing, to

solve the political, economic and military problems their policies created by killing,

and to deal with those ordinary people and fellow Khmer Rouge who opposed, dissented

from or merely failed successfully to implement their polices by killing."

According to the report released by the War Crimes Research Office of the College

of Law at American University in Washington and the Coalition for International Justice,

the Communist Party of Kampuchea targeted three specific groups: those associated

with Lon Nol's Republic, the non-communist population and party members suspected

of being traitors.

Nuon Chea, a former DK Standing Committee member, is singled out in the report as

the man who designed and implemented those policies. The authors noted that he may

have played "a more important role than Pol Pot in dealing with confessions

and purges". Chea received telegrams requesting authorization to detain or execute

suspected traitors from the grassroots.

Nuon Chea, 76, now lives peacefully in a wooden house outside of Pailin by the Thai

border with his wife and one of his daughters. Complaining about his failing health,

he energetically denied any responsibility for the atrocities of the KR regime.

"I was only in charge on the education and of the National Assembly. I did not

have the right to give orders, to make any decision. I could not decide about arrest

and torture," adding that only Pol Pot and Son Sen were in charge of security


Nuon Chea continued to say: "We never had a policy to kill people. Those who

betrayed the nation killed the Khmer. They are the enemy." But he could not

come up with a clear definition of who were the enemies.

The reference to enemy fills up the correspondence between low level cadre and the

leaders of the CPK. Words like 'sweeping away' or 'smashing' are used like leitmotiv

for eliminating whoever was considered as opposing DK policies.

"The top leaders decided those who were the enemy," explained Meas Muth,

former Division commander during the DK. He now holds a position as adviser to the

Ministry of Defense and is building himself a villa on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

As leader of a military division, the report implicates Meas Muth in the arrest and

transfer to S-21 of cadre of his unit.

"The top leaders would send me a letter requesting me to send 100 men to another

part of the country. Once they were out of my zone, I did not know what happened

to them," he said.

"Don't ask me or low ranking officials," said Muth of crimes against humanity,

adding later: "Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are still alive. If they

say they do not know anything, I cannot know better because I was not living in Phnom

Penh at that time."

Ke Pauk took a similar line, saying that "people at the low level just carried

out the orders", and blamed Pol Pot for decisions about which people should

be sent for "re-education".

"Pol Pot was the top leader. Nobody dared to be bigger than him," an angry

Ke Pauk retorted to the Post's questioning. "I already told you, but you keep

asking the question again and again. You say this [the report] is new, but it is

always the same story. The world already knows who were the DK leaders."

The chain of command from the lower levels to the top leadership in the DK era is

a central part of the new report, which authors researched through minutes of meetings,

confessions from arrested people, telegrams from the low ranks to the top and notebooks

of communist party cadre.

"Those documents are key to show the links between the village level and the

Standing Committee," explained Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center.

Telegrams would start with 'Presented with respect to Beloved and Missed brother.'

In some confessions, a list of names of the people mentioned by the prisoner are

attached for the recipient of the message to determine their fate. According to the

report, crossed or underlined names could mean that their arrest was decided.

"The documents show both individual and superior responsibility on the part

of the seven men we name," explained Steve Heder. "They were the ones who

put the killing machinery into place, they were the ones who set it into motion with

key decisions, they were the ones who publicly and privately encouraged those who

did the killing hands-on to ºget on with it; and they were the ones with the

power to bring the killings to a halt, which they did not do until after they lost

control of most of the country to the Vietnamese in 1979."

A good example of the constant connection between low ranking cadre and the decision

makers is an interrogator's brief notes on the October 1977 confession of Khmer Rouge

cadre Nheum Sim. "It is only after I tortured him that he confessed to the story

of having been a police informer and a CIA," the interrogator wrote. On the

same document is written, "one copy to Brother Nuon." Asked about this

confession, Nuon Chea remained stoic and he smiled before answering bluntly: "Who

is Nheum Sim? I do not know anyone with this name. I was never sent any messages

of this kind. I never read it."

The report also highlights the role Ieng Sary played in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy.

He was sent confessions and 'publicly encouraged arrests and executions within the

Ministry of Foreign Affairs'. King Norodom Sihanouk pardoned Ieng Sary after he defected

in 1996. Since then, Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly noted that the Khmer Rouge

leader could not face prosecution as he showed his good faith in joining the government.

A trial for the Khmer Rouge has been under negotiation for four years. The Cambodian

government and the United Nations reached an agreement last year to set up a joint

tribunal formed of Cambodian and international judges. A bill in Cambodian parliament

to establish the tribunal is expected to be signed into law by August. Though the

bill allows for an international presence in the tribunal, the UN and the Cambodian

government have yet to agree on the details. No time frame has been fixed although

Prime Minister Hun Sen said he whishes to see proceedings starting by year-end and

that the tribunal will go ahead with or without the UN.

Quoted in the New York Times, David J. Scheffer, the former American ambassador at

large for war crimes who negotiated with Cambodia for a tribunal, remarked that the

report is "a big leap forward" in establishing the specific case against

Khmer Rouge leaders.

"This is extremely important to reconstruct the paper trail all the way to the

top and establish the command authority of the leaders," Mr. Scheffer told the

Times. "We're reaching a very important moment."

Also interviewed by the New York Times, Ralph Zacklin, the assistant secretary general

for legal affairs at the United Nations, who is involved in the negotiations with

the government said: "This report will be a template for any prosecutor, a starting

point for an investigation and, it definitely will focus a lot of attention on the

Cambodian trials and presumably it will energize member states to keep pushing this


US Ambassador Kent Wiede-mann appeared more cautious though, saying: "This report

is only the expression of the scholars who wrote it and it should not be mistaken

as a form of justice. The evidence is interesting but it has no value until reviewed

by a fully appointed prosecutor."

Prime Minister Hun Sen said that it was up to the court to decide who should be trial.

"I find it funny to hear the advice of the foreigners regarding the state of

law and the division of power between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary

while at the same time they tell us who we should put on trial," he said at

the Council of Ministers.

Asked whether he thought that the report will have consequences on the negotiations

on the trial Steve Heder responded: "To the extent that it motivates those concerned

to push for a fair trial, then it might affect those negotiations."  

"But because most of Cambodia's aid donors aren't interested in pushing seriously

hard for a genuinely fair trial, regardless of the evidence, the report may end up

standing more as a historical record than a judicial preview," he added.

President of the Center for Social Development Chea Vannath said the report may put

pressure on the government to encourage progress on the trial.

"We want a trial of the Khmer Rouge to eliminate the culture of impunity. All

of us want our current and future leaders not to commit crimes against the people."

On the issue of whether a tribunal will actually be held, all of the men the Post

interviewed said it was up to the government to decide.

Meas Muth said: "For me there is no problem with the court. I will say everything:

what I know and what I did. The low ranks had to respect the orders. It was like

under Hitler. Hitler asked Goering to kill the Jews. If Goering did not do it, he

would have been killed. Like [former S-21 chief] Mr Duch, he was ordered to kill

people and if he did not kill them, he would have been killed."

Ke Pauk said: "I think that if Pol Pot was still alive, he would be the only

person to stand trial because he was the man in charge. It should not spread to us."

Of the prospect of being brought before a tribunal, Nuon Chea said: "I am preparing

myself for this eventuality." He added: "Who saw me kill people? It might

be difficult to prove."

Unrepentant to the end, Chea said he was old and wanted to look to the future and

leave the past behind. At one point asking with a laugh "Do I look like a killer",

he spoke of his respect for the five principles of Buddhism, including that of "do

not kill".



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