As Nuon Chea, the secretive Khmer Rouge Brother No. 2, spent his second day in prison undergoing a medical checkup, Killing Fields analysts from around the globe called the arrest a major step forward in the efforts to bring aging KR leaders to trial.
KR delegation (Nuon Chea, Quen Xi Tong mayor of Beijing) pose with Chinese - likely people's National Assembly members - in front of a temple
The octogenarian, second in line to Pol Pot and nicknamed "Prahok" for his liking of fish paste, was plucked from a quiet retirement near the former Khmer Rouge stronghold Pailin shortly after 6am on September 19 and flown to a special criminal tribunal detention center in Phnom Penh.
"I had prepared my heart already," said his wife Ly Kim Seng, 72. "There was no way to avoid a situation like today, I had known about the ECCC for a long time, but now my husband has actually gone, my heart is heavy."
"What I am most concerned about is his health - it deteriorates from day to day. I hope he can come home from the ECCC soon," she said.
"He is undergoing a routine medical check today," said Peter Foster, United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trial (UNAKRT) spokesperson. "He's 82, but from all reports we hear he is in reasonable health."
Analysts called the arrest historic and of immense significance.
"Nuon is the key surviving figure of the DK regime," said Philip Short, author of the book Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. "By comparison, Khieu Samphan and even Duch are little potatoes, active executors of policy rather than decision makers. Nuon made decisions."
Others said Nuon Chea's arrest sheds new light on the stalemate previously thought to be delaying action against other Khmer Rouge leaders, specifically Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan, who both have been under some level of protection from the government of Cambodia.
Pol Pot and Nuon Chea sit on rocks in the jungle believed to be in Kratie provinc in 1974
"Now that he has been arrested, the amnesty extended to Khieu Samphan will be hard to justify, and so will the pardon extended to Ieng Sary," historian David Chandler told the Post via email on September 20.
Nuon Chea was formally charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes by Khmer Rouge tribunal judges. It is the hybrid-tribunal's second arrest in two months.
Although many people lauded the arrest as a sign of significant progress, some questioned how much meaning imprisoning the old and fragile Nuon Chea, alongside 74-year-old Kaing Guek Eav who was charged in July, holds for Cambodia.
"I think it will make a big difference," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). "Victims have long felt it would be impossible to bring Nuon Chea to trial. He has been known for many decades as a murderer, but people thought he was too powerful to touch. Now, having seen him being arrested and detained - you can imagine how we feel. It's amazing."
Nuon Chea's wooden house in Pailin was searched and various documents and personal possessions seized by an eight-strong team of judicial police officers and tribunal investigators. He was taken with a heavy police escort to a waiting RCAF helicopter in Palin, flown to Phnom Penh's military airbase and then driven in a police convoy to the headquarters of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
Chandler said the arrest was extremely significant. "As the second most important member of the Democratic Kampuchea administration he must at a minimum have been aware of the killings and other deaths for which the regime and its policies were responsible. The paper trail connecting him with responsibility for these horrors will not be easy to establish, but I suspect that his knowledge of S-21 and what was happening there will come out at the trial."
Nuon Chea (back row 4th from the left) with Pol Pot, Ta Monk, Son Sen and others in meeting in the 70s. Note in the background the pictures of Marx, Engels and Stalin
Short said Nuon Chea is the only surviving member of the secret three-man Security Committee, with Pol Pot and Son Sen, which had formal oversight of the purges and mass killings. Short told the Post the arrest is the first real sign that the Cambodian government is serious about allowing the ECCC to move forward. Ta Mok and Duch were, he said, both arrested for different reasons and happened to be in prison and therefore available for trial at the time the ECCC process began. Mok, aged 81, died in custody in 2006 before the ECCC got under way.
"Nuon is different as he has been detained specifically to await trial," Short said. "His arrest is not a turning point itself - rather, it is an outward sign that at some point in the past year a turning point has occurred and that there is now a reasonable probability that a trial will take place. Whether it will be the kind of trial that the international community hopes for is a different matter. But at least the odds are now that Nuon, Khieu Samphan and a few others will have their day in court."
Some questioned the purpose of giving only a handful of senior leaders their day in court when so many others will never come to justice.
"Nobody really believes that what happened to 1.7 million Cambodians was the sole responsibility of a handful of senior leaders," said Prince Sisowath Thomico, who recently called for the ECCC to be dissolved.
"This arrest was just natural, the logic of the tribunal. I care more about peace and national reconciliation than arguing over what happened 30 years ago. I would like it to belong to history. It is not the purpose of justice to reopen wounds in Cambodian society."
Thomico's request last week that the court be dissolved was immediately shot down by the government.
Minister of Information Khieu Kannarith said that Nuon Chea's arrest is proof of the government's commitment to the ECCC.
"We know how important this process is to stop anything like the Khmer Rouge regime ever happening again," said Kannarith on August 20.
US Embassy spokesperson Jeff Daigle said that Nuon Chea's arrest was a "positive step forward."
The US does not directly fund the ECCC due to fears over the quality of justice it will deliver, but Daigle said that in light of the recent arrests, the Embassy was "evaluating where the tribunal stands right now and hopefully in the near future we will be able to make an assessment as to whether this tribunal can deliver international standards of justice."
For others, the most important issue is not whether the court meets international standards of justice, but whether it will help flesh out Cambodia's historical record by getting the people responsible to tell their side of the story.
"We cannot have a perfect court, but we can have an acceptable one," said Thun Saray, president of local rights NGO Adhoc.
Former KR senior leaders including Nuon Chea in the early 80s
Following the Khmer Rouge's victory in 1975, Nuon Chea was in charge of internal party control, propaganda, and training. During the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) period he sometimes served as acting prime minister, and was, as Brother Number 2, never far from Pol Pot's side.
Experts say Nuon Chea's position of Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) Central Committee gave him immense influence over key decisions in both practical matters - such as the role of S-21 and the prison system - and broad brush policies such as the evacuation of the cities, abolition of money and the ruthlessness of collectivization.
According to Short, Nuon Chea had special responsibility for 'security.' "In blunt language, the machinery of repression and murder which kept the regime in place," Short said.
"Even former Khmer Rouge refer to him today as 'the man by whom all the evil arrived.' That, of course, is unfair. Pol Pot was the man. But Nuon was his principle sidekick and played a crucial role in every major decision the regime took. "
However the analysts questioned how cooperative Nuon Chea will be when asked to testify about the internal workings of the Khmer Rouge regime.
"Given his culpability I would expect him either to refuse to answer any questions at all or, if he does respond, to deny everything en bloc," said Short. "Either way, I think it is very unlikely that his testimony will advance our understanding of how the DK regime worked - which is doubly unfortunate because he certainly knows far more about the CPK's inner workings then anyone else still living."
Chandler said that as Nuon Chea was, by all accounts, completely unrepentant, he was unlikely to feel any obligation to provide crucial information to the ECCC.
"He is on record as stating that secrecy was the essence of the DK," he said. "More recently, he has said that he spent the DK period busy with the DK National Assembly which we know met only once for half a day. From his public statements, it seems clear to me that Nuon Chea still believes that the revolution was an excellent idea, destroyed by traitors and foreigners.
He seems devoid of remorse and has never expressed the slightest regret for anything that happened in the DK era. At the same time, because he is so wily and apparently in pretty good mental condition, his defence tactics will be interesting to observe as the tribunal proceeds."
Nuon Chea's son, 43-year-old Nuon Say, said on August 19 the day of the arrest, that while he had no confidence in the ECCC, he had faith in his father's ability to "clarify the darkest issues of the Khmer Rouge."
That is what many Cambodians, on hearing news of the arrest, said they want: "I want to see and I want to know who killed the people," said Phnom Penh security guard Chhun Heoun, 57, who said he lost eight members of his family during the DK regime. "I hope the tribunal will find justice."
Nuon Chea: A Biography
1927: Born in Battambang province.
1942: Begins studying in Bangkok, under the patronage of Sieu Heng, while living as a temple boy at Wat Benjamabopit.
1944: Enrolls at Thammasat University but does not complete his law degree.
1947: After a three-month stay in the Thai province of Chachoengsao he was ordained as a monk.
1947: Joins the Indochina Communist Party.
1950: Returns to Cambodia to join the struggle against the French.
1951: The Indochina Communist Party splits into three branches and the Cambodian branch - the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) - elects his former patron Sieu Heng as secretary.
1951 to 1954: He and Sieu Heng travel periodically to Hanoi to receive political training.
1954: Returns to Phnom Penh and begins to work closely with Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) who has by this point returned from France and is a member of KPRP.
1960: Following Sieu Heng's defection from KPRP, the party reorganizes as the Workers Party of Kampuchea and Nuon Chea becomes deputy secretary.
1962: The first secretary of the party disappears and Saloth Sar becomes acting secretary as a result of rumors that Nuon Chea is still in contact with Sieu Heng.
1963: Pol Pot flees to the maquis - the jungle. Nuon Chea remains in Phnom Penh and works in secret.
1967: Norodom Sihanouk crushes the Samlaut uprising in which Nuon Chea may have been tangentially involved and Nuon Chea flees to the maquis to join Pol Pot. He becomes "Brother Number Two" charged with training and organizational matters.
1975 to 1978: Nuon Chea controls internal party organization, propaganda and training. He was President of the Democratic Kampuchea "parliament" and briefly served as Prime Minister.
1979: Phnom Penh falls to the Vietnamese-backed invading forces and the Khmer Rouge abandon the capital for the jungle. Nuon Chea is put in charge of the party's political wing. He remained important in the party - which was ostensibly dissolved in 1981 - long after the DK regime had collapsed.
December 1998: He surrenders to Hun Sen's government along with Khieu Samphan. Nuon Chea is granted amnesty and retires in Pailin with his wife, Ly Kim Seng, and family.
September 2007: He is arrested by the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Source: Post archives and Historical Dictionary of Cambodia