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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer Rouge witness’s memory challenged

Khmer Rouge witness’s memory challenged

The memory of witness Ong Thong Hoeung was alternately indispensable and unreliable to the legal teams of defendants Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, respectively, during testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday.

Khieu Samphan’s attorney, Anta Guisse, relied on the veracity of Hoeung’s statements when she used them to reinforce the team’s longtime claim that the former Khmer Rouge head of state had been little more than a figurehead who had no part in the regime’s crimes.

Guisse quoted a passage in Hoeung’s book, I Believed in the Khmer Rouge, in which he described Samphan as “some kind of puppet”, not even being granted an armchair on the dais at a speech by Pol Pot.

“Were these statements of people who listened to that speech when the technical institute was being inaugurated?” Guisse asked.

“Yes, that was it,” responded Hoeung, saying that “three or four” witnesses corroborated the account.

Ieng Sary’s lawyer, Michael Karnavas, on the other hand, had earlier attempted to impeach Hoeung’s credibility by seeking to poke holes in an anecdote Hoeung had told, in which he discovered – after the Khmer Rouge’s ousting – the confession of a Tuol Sleng prisoner being used by a street vendor to wrap banana cakes.

“I cannot recall the exact date, but on that day, I was somewhere around Phsar Tuol Tompong market, and I remember seeing my friend’s name on the paper … so I tried to track it down, and I found that it came from S-21,” he said, explaining how he came to work at the infamous prison as an archive translator after the Khmer Rouge’s fall.

Karnavas then referred to a 1979 interview Hoeung had given to historian Steven Heder, in which the witness had said the invading Vietnamese were seeking translators at S-21 to aid in their trial of regime leaders, asking whether Hoeung had sought work at S-21 because of the confession he found, or because the Vietnamese were looking for help.

“This goes to his memory and his credibility, especially when we are being asked to believe quotes that he attributed to my client more than 30 years ago,” Karnavas said, responding to an objection in which the prosecution said the two choices weren’t mutually exclusive.

Ieng Sary himself was still absent from the courtroom yesterday after a decline in his health halted proceedings on Monday. However, Karnavas said that while his client was “very frail”, his health had improved enough to permit him to follow the testimony remotely.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at



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