After 15 years of investigation, a French judge has thrown out a controversial case alleging that France delivered unwilling former Lon Nol government officials into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975 as the communists took over Phnom Penh.
Ung Billon, the wife of former National Assembly president Ung Boun Hor, filed the complaint in 1999. Her lawyer confirmed the dismissal of the investigation yesterday.
Billon’s husband had taken refuge at the French Embassy on April 17, along with hundreds of other Cambodians and foreigners, including other high-ranking officials from the former government.
Boun Hor – along with Prince Sirik Matak and others – asked Paris for political asylum but was denied. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge had demanded they, and all other Cambodians hiding at the embassy, be expelled, threatening force.
Billon says her terrified husband was delivered to the communists on April 20 by embassy gendarmes, despite it being known that, as a “traitorous” former top official in Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic, he would almost certainly be killed. He was never seen again.
In a 2012 interview with the Post, Billon compared what allegedly occurred at the embassy to the collaboration between France’s Vichy government and the Nazis during World War II “when the French delivered the Jews to the Germans”.
But on January 27, judge Emmanuelle Ducos said Billon’s allegations were “not corroborated” and threw out the case, a source close to the case told AFP on Tuesday.
“Despite discrepancies as to how exactly the departure of the Cambodian dignitaries unravelled on April 20, 1975, all witnesses agreed that this departure was part of a voluntary surrender,” she ruled.
“Informed of the ultimatum given by the Khmer Rouge authorities over their handover, the dignitaries of the old regime, including Ung Boun Hor, had decided to surrender to these authorities to avoid an armed intervention in the embassy and protect the other refugees.”
Ducos also exonerated the French executive, including then-president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, from responsibility.
While Paris refused to grant asylum to the dignitaries, and communicated their names to the Khmer Rouge, these decisions “cannot be considered a voluntary and conscious participation to an offence”, she said.
Although a photo published by Newsweek magazine in May 1975 appears to show Boun Hor struggling with two French gendarmes at the embassy, Ducos said the photo, out of context, was not enough evidence to “establish a version of the facts”.
In fact, according to French news magazine L’Express, then-embassy vice consul Jean Dyrac and Georges Villevieille, one of the gendarmes, both agree that the photo was labelled incorrectly by Newsweek and actually showed Boun Hor entering the embassy on April 17 instead of leaving on April 20.
But further complicating matters, Pierre Gouillon, another gendarme in the photo, told the newspaper Le Monde in 2007 the opposite, and that Boun Hor in fact “did not want to go”. “He must have known what was going to happen to him. He struggled, he was pushed. In any case, the Khmer Rouge would have taken him by force,” he said.
Patrick Baudouin, Billon’s lawyer, told the Post yesterday that the judge’s decision was a “huge disappointment”.
“It was an opportunity for Mrs Ung to finally have the truth about what happened to her husband in 1975,” he said.
Although Baudouin added that there could have been further investigation, he admitted that the narrow legal basis for the case made it difficult.
“She could have jurisdiction only if she could find evidence that Mr Ung Boun Hor was subjected to torture,” he said. Such evidence was never found.
But, he added, “the question that remains is one of political responsibility”.
What exactly happened at the French Embassy in the days following the fall of Phnom Penh and what role Paris played in sending Cambodians to their deaths is a controversial subject of debate in France.
The events were immortalised in the1984 film The Killing Fields and Francois Bizot’s memoir The Gate.
French Embassy First Secretary Nicolas Baudouin said yesterday that the embassy does not comment on judicial decisions. But he did confirm that it had provided support to the French judge and her team when they came to Cambodia in 2013.
Documentation Center of Cambodia executive director Youk Chhang said yesterday that France does not have a good record of dealing with “its own inhumane past”.
“And its memory with the country [it] colonised seems to be very selective,” he said.
In The Death and Life of Dith Pran¸ former New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who was at the embassy during the fall of Phnom Penh, expresses sympathy for vice consul Dyrac after Cambodians were expelled on April 20.
Dyrac tells Schanberg: “When we do such things, we are no longer men.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP