Standing up in court, 81-year-old tribunal defendant Khieu Samphan made the unprecedented move of responding to a civil party’s question regarding the whereabouts of the man’s family member, who disappeared under the Khmer Rouge regime more than 35 years ago.
“Unfortunately, I have no information at all about the fate of your uncle,” Samphan, who hardly ever speaks in court, told Chau Ny in a brief statement.
The former president of the state presidium during Democratic Kampuchea, who is on trial with Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, then did something rarer still. He apologised.
“I am saying this from the bottom of my heart, so that everything is clear and that your mind is clear. I feel sorry that there is no way I can help you to entertain your request or to answer your request.”
Ny, the first Khmer Krom to testify at the tribunal, had waited to hear back from Samphan since his appearance in November, when he broke with custom by confronting the ageing defendant about the fate of his wife’s uncle, Chau Sao, an acquaintance of Samphan’s who disappeared shortly after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April 1975.
Coming at the end of Ny’s testimony, the statement was strong enough for the defence to call Ny back yesterday and hash out his allegation.
Samphan conceded that he knew Sao, a prominent member of the Khmer Krom community, “during the 1960s – he was the president of a bank,” but that he hadn’t seen him after the city was emptied of its residents. He denied that he wrote letters to Sao asking him to return from Prek Kdam off of National Road 5, a story that Ny heard from a driver of Sao’s at a wedding in 1979.
Though the answer fell short, Jennifer Holligan, senior legal associate with the team representing Ny from Access to Justice Asia, called the events “momentous” for the Khmer Krom community and civil parties.
“This has set a precedent for all the civil parties to the proceedings, who now have an opportunity to ask the defendants questions connected to their suffering. This is especially timely given the Victim Impact Hearings commencing next week at the court, where civil parties will testify solely about the suffering they endured under Democratic Kampuchea.”
Khmer Krom people were targeted and killed by the Khmer Rouge because of their roots in the lower Mekong delta region of Vietnam. Ny, now 60 and living in Takeo province, hid his affiliation with the ethnic group to survive. Many of his other relatives perished from starvation. Was his wife’s uncle, Sao, killed for his identity, and if so, where are his remains?
Ny will have to keep waiting for answers.
“I lost everyone, and the pain and the suffering was unbearable. It will remain with me for the rest of my life,” he said at the end of the court session, adding that the only thing he wanted to know was Sao’s location. “But now, my hope disappears, and only the pain remains.”