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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - After verdict, KR suspect remains defiant

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When Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, Im Chem was watching. The ex-Khmer Rouge leader is betting she won’t be next. Charlotte Pert

After verdict, KR suspect remains defiant

Im Chem has long lived in fear that the Khmer Rouge tribunal would come to her placid village and detain her. But this week, the feeling is particularly palpable.

On Thursday, hundreds of kilometres away in Phnom Penh, senior regime leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.

Chem, who is being investigated as part of the government-opposed Case 004, is considered by prosecutors at the UN-backed court as one of five people beyond the senior leadership “most responsible” for the crimes of the ultra-communist regime.

During the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign, she is alleged to have led internal purges and presided over the deaths of tens of thousands. She is worried that the tribunal is moving closer to indicting her.

Villagers gather at a pagoda in Anlong Veng to watch the sentencing of Nuon Chea and Khieu Sampan
Villagers gather at a pagoda in Anlong Veng to watch the sentencing of Nuon Chea and Khieu Sampan Charlotte Pert

“We want to hear the exact words from the court that they are stopping and will not deal with any more cases, so that we can live with happiness in our minds,” she says, before offering a grim, but fanciful, warning.

“But if they still continue, it could make the Khmer Rouge come back again. And more problems will come in the future, because it will affect all [former] Khmer Rouge that are living around the country.”

While the 72-year-old has a legitimate reason to believe she may one day see the inside of a courtroom, her words reflect the feelings of many former cadres in Anlong Veng, where the last hard-line communist soldiers ceremonially changed into government army uniforms in early 1999 – marking the end of the civil war and the Cambodian communist movement.

Although the tribunal has made it clear that they are only going after high-ranking regime officials, lower-level former cadre here are still beset by fear that if the court pushes on, they could be implicated.

“They are so scared. They don’t want the court to continue to other cases, because they are afraid that one day the court will come to arrest them,” says Yim Phanna, the governor of Anlong Veng since 2006 and a former guerrilla commander who led mass defections to the government in March 1998.

Anlong Veng has been the beneficiary of swathes of government development funds since the war ended, and Phanna says people here – some of whom were jungle fighters for almost 30 years – want to look towards a prosperous future, rather than a war-torn past.

People digging a water canal under the guard of an armed Khmer Rouge soldier in Battambang in 1976
People digging a water canal under the guard of an armed Khmer Rouge soldier in Battambang in 1976. Courtesy of the documentation center of cambodia via AFP

“I think I support this verdict, [but] now it should stop. Don’t waste the money.”

Sang Sa Roeung, who guides tourists around the derelict house of his former boss, Ta Mok, the notorious zone leader known as “the butcher”, who died in 2006 before he could go to trial, takes a less conciliatory approach.

Leaning on a hut at the entrance to the site, his prosthetic leg peeking out from the bottom of his trousers, Sa Roeung says the verdict against Chea and Samphan has left him “heartbroken”, because all the Khmer Rouge leaders did was try to save the nation from Vietnamese imperialism.

“I am still wondering why the international judge did not listen to their [arguments], because they said yuon [a term for Vietnamese considered derogatory by many] were killing Khmer,” he says, as a group of beer-swilling men seated behind him nod in agreement.

He calls for the court to be shuttered, because he believes it will come after men like him if it pursues further cases, such as that involving Chem.

Chem is one of three individuals targeted for prosecution as part of Case 004. With fellow suspect Ta Tith, she is accused of being part of a joint criminal enterprise “to purge the Northwest Zone and execute all perceived enemies of the DK [Democratic Kampuchea] regime”.

Chem served as the head of Preah Net Preah district, in the Northwest Zone, from June 1977 – when the purges began – until the fall of the regime.

As part of this role, Chem is believed to have run the Phnom Trayoung security centre, where an estimated 40,000 people died from starvation, overwork and executions.

People in the pagoda watch as the trial is explained
People in the pagoda watch as the trial is explained Charlotte Pert

While Case 002/02, involving Chea and Samphan, will only start evidentiary hearings later this year and is likely to take years to adjudicate, Chem, unlike other suspects in Cases 003 and 004, appears to be healthy.

In years to come, if these cases ever get off the ground – which most observers believe will not happen due to the government’s vociferous opposition – she could be alive and fit for trial.

When Post Weekend visited her house on the outskirts of Anlong Veng town on Thursday afternoon, Chem had just returned from her daily ritual of planting crops a kilometre away.

With a wide smile, she explained that despite her age, she always rides a bicycle back and forth.

When the subject of the accusations against her are brought up, her face darkens. Conditions at Phnom Trayoung under he watch are said to have been brutal.

“I deny all the accusations against me. I was doing the same as other normal people during that time. Three of my kids also died,” she says, speaking louder, as two of her grandchildren scuttle around and hug her legs.

Suspect in Case 004, Im Chem, at her home
Suspect in Case 004, Im Chem, at her home Charlotte Pert

“During that time, what we did was try to protect the nation. We tried to help people live in happiness. And in Trapeang Thma [the regime’s largest irrigation project and a crime site in Case 004], I came late, so I don’t know about the people who were killed [there]. I just urged people to do farming.

“Why are they accusing us of crimes against humanity?”
Sitting on a wooden bench underneath her stilted house, Chem starts to get more agitated. On the wall behind her is a Cambodian People’s Party election poster from last year bearing the smiling face of Prime Minister Hun Sen beaming down on new roads and development projects.

“If they want to continue with the other cases, it seems like they want to bring Cambodia back into civil war,” she says, noting the fact that the premier has made the same argument.

In February 2012, Chem was visited and notified about the investigation by the tribunal’s then international co-investigating judge, Laurent Kasper-Ansermet.

While the case continues to be stalled in its investigative phase and is subject to deep divides between Cambodian and international investigators as to whether it should be pursued, Chem has recently been assigned two lawyers, who she says have visited her once and made her feel better about the case.

While she did not want a foreign lawyer, her Cambodian lawyer, Bit Seanglim, said the court would not recognise him if she did not have one, she says.

She no longer wants to talk to the media about the allegations.

Sang Sa Roeung, who fought under brutal Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok
Sang Sa Roeung, who fought under brutal Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok Charlotte Pert

“I have denied the accusations against me since the beginning...I cannot accept [them]. So if the court asks me about this, I will refer them to talk to my lawyers.”

Chem exhorts the families of victims who want her to go on trial to think about their own elderly mothers, and what it would be like for them to be detained at the court.

She is haunted by the idea of her family watching her dragged away and put in the dock.

“I have said again and again, I will not go to the court at all, even [if] people from the court come to arrest me. I have done nothing wrong, so why do I need to go to the court?”

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life on Thursday but face a second trial. The allegations in Case 002/02 include:

• Genocide against the Cham and the Vietnamese
The prosecution will argue that the number of Chams killed relative to the overall population demonstrates that the regime aimed to eradicate their religion. To preserve the purity of their society, the Khmer Rouge ordered the removal of all Vietnamese nationals. This meant either sending them back to Vietnam or extermination.

• Forced marriages and rape
An integral policy employed by the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to remould society into an agrarian and classless body was forced marriage. This included rape and was widespread.

• Internal purges
A wave of executions from the top to the bottom of the Khmer Rouge ranks began in earnest in 1977. Many arrests were made based on names handed over by prisoners while they were being tortured.

• S-21 Security Centre, Kraing Ta Chan Security Centre, Au Kanseng Security Centre and Phnom Kraol Security Centre
While Kaing Guek Eav or ‘Duch’, chief of the notorious school-turned-prison S-21, where some 14,000 died, was jailed for his crimes in 2010, there were detention centres throughout the country where similar atrocities took place.

• 1st January Dam Worksite; Kampong Chhnang Airport Construction site, Trapeang Thma Dam Worksite
In order to establish an agrarian society the Khmer Rouge forced people to work under harsh conditions, including long hours without break. None were exempt, not even pregnant women. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were reportedly seen visiting these sites.

• Treatment of Buddhists (limited to Tram Kok Cooperatives)
Leading up to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, all religion was banned. Buddhist monks were sent to Tram Kok where they were forced to disrobe and prohibited from taking part in any religious ceremonies, including funeral ceremonies and lighting of incense.

• Targeting of former Khmer Republic Officials
During the Khmer Rouge rule, former Khmer Republic officials or those suspected of having connections with officials were scrutinised in the fields, with those speaking out against the CPK disappearing. In Tram Kok, a document with the names of 11 former Lon Nol officers was found.

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