Picking up after the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s winter adjournment yesterday, the Nuon Chea defence team challenged a witnesses’ implication of high-ranking regime officials in ordering alleged crimes committed in the waters off Democratic Kampuchea.
Anonymous witness “2-TCW-1000” – who had previously testified to serving in navy division 164 under the command of Case 003 suspect Meas Muth – told the court yesterday that he had been stationed in the Southwest Zone between 1975 and 1979. It was there, he claimed, that he witnessed crimes against soldiers and civilians.
Under questioning by Chea defender Victor Koppe, the witness recounted the SS Mayaguez incident – when in May 1975, Khmer Rouge naval forces near the island of Koh Tang seized a US merchant marine container ship.
“The Mayaguez was seized and it was pulled to [Koh] Tang island,” he said, elaborating that his commanders opted to use minesweeper boats due to their speed to accost the ship.
“The order came from the upper echelon to capture the Mayaguez,” he said.
According to the witness, the crew of the Mayaguez were taken to Sihanoukville – at the time named Kampong Som – before an ensuing rescue operation by the US Marines the next morning.
“The fighting became intensified on the island and there was engagement by helicopters … I myself actually shot down a helicopter. I was severely wounded in the fighting,” the witness said.
Koppe, however, seemingly sought to challenge the witness’ contention that the orders for the capture had come from the highest levels.
He went on to cite a classified diplomatic cable from the American Embassy in Bangkok that described Khmer Rouge forces as acting autonomously in the incident, an assertion the witness appeared to, at least in part, support.
“There was no order during the heat of the battlefield – our focus was the defeat of the enemy – we were autonomous,” the witness said.
When Koppe asked what he meant by “autonomous,” the witness responded, “At that time, the situation was tense … we only focus on fighting back.”
“You have to remember that that was in 1975; the country was just liberated and our spirit was to engage in the battlefield and in self-mastery.”