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Somebody to lean on

Witness Hun Sethany (left) gives her testimony with Chhay Marideth (right), a counsellor for the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in May.
Witness Hun Sethany (left) gives her testimony with Chhay Marideth (right), a counsellor for the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in May. ECCC

Somebody to lean on

When civil party Hen Sethany took the stand at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in late May, she was not alone. As she told the court how her parents and most of her nine siblings were slaughtered during the regime, a counsellor named Chhay Marideth sat beside her, rubbing her back like a mother soothing an inconsolable child.

Chhay Marideth’s wiry black hair is one of the more common sights on the witness stand at the tribunal, and it’s likely to make several more appearances yet as proceedings continue in Case 002/02, which has already seen several civil parties testify.

“[Survivors] feel like they don’t have any other people come to help them and support them,” said Marideth, who works with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO). Because of this, most of her clients ask her to sit beside them in the courtroom.

TPO in recent years has been ramping up the kind of therapy that Marideth provides, which it calls “testimonial therapy”, or TT – a process that prepares witness for trial by reclaiming their trauma narrative. Just 14 people underwent TT in 2012; 163 underwent the therapy in 2014.

Marideth has worked at TPO, since the centre’s founding in 1995, and is one of nine counsellors for the Justice and Relief for Survivors of the Khmer Rouge project for TPO, which has counselled 648 people since 2008 for Cases 001 and 002. However, Marideth holds a unique connection to the people she counsels. She was pregnant and a newlywed when the Lon Nol regime fell.

“When the Khmer Rouge came, they delivered the baby,” she said this week at the TPO headquarters.

“It was difficult, but the same as other people – no food to eat and overwork,” she recalled.

“When I first worked with the victims, and they told their stories, I felt like I wanted to cry,” Marideth said. “But for a long time [now] I have not felt like that.”

Elements of psychological care have been used to support victims of trauma, like the tribunal’s civil parties, in the courtroom for the past several decades. In 2009, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Courts formally granted victims the ability to testify “freely and truthfully without fear of retribution”, a measure meant to ensure security, privacy and psychological well-being.

Uniquely, Cambodia is also the first international tribunal to allow civil parties to act as witnesses.

At TPO’s tall office building on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Marideth and Taing Sieng Hun, another counsellor for the project, explained the process of mentally preparing a witness for trial, including proper courtroom etiquette, like “not throwing shoes at the accused”.

The counsellors also practice a technique, called “grounding”, meant to keep the witnesses emotionally stable on the stand – a time when trauma victims are often triggered to re-live painful memories. After the trial, counsellors “debrief” the victims, and check up on their emotional state through phone sessions.

While undergoing TT, each civil party is asked to detail a legal testimony before taking the stand. In the meantime, TPO also works with victims to collect a separate “psychological testimony”, compiled over the course of a week.

“The victim’s memory does not come back in order; they remember one thing, they remember another thing,” said Sieng Hun, the counsellor.

The victims tell their story over and over again, and then the counsellor reads it back to them repeatedly, which is called “exposure”. This can be traumatic for the victim, but allows them to keep piecing together their story, and feel more prepared when they are sitting on the witness stand, Sieng Hun added.

“They get stronger [when] they are reminded of the people who love them,” he said.

At the end of the week, TPO takes the civil parties to the Killing Fields. For most of them, who live in far off provinces or have deliberately refrained from going, this is their first visit to the grounds. Inside the Choeung Ek pagoda, TPO counsellors read each victim’s testimony one by one to the gathered group.

“During the Khmer Rouge, when members of the family were killed, they didn’t get to say any words to each other, so that is why bringing the victims back is [important],” explained Sieng Hun.

Inger Agger, a Copenhagen-trained psychologist who introduced the technique to TPO in 2009, said incorporating religion is particularly important to the healing process.

“Here the trauma story is re-framed . . . so that it becomes a dignifying story about violations of human rights,” she explained, adding that exposure therapy alone can have risks of “re-traumatising” victims.

Indeed, it is not uncommon for civil parties to become visibly distressed when testifying tribunal. Often, they will look down, their voice tight, or sway in their seat. Crying is common.

However, Marideth explained, the process is not only cathartic, but informative.

“After the testimony, they feel like they understand more about what happened during that time.”

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