At the opening hearing of the defendants’ appeal of Case 002/01’s guilty verdict, a former commune chief told the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Supreme Court Chamber yesterday that cadres received strict orders from zone chiefs not to harm Lon Nol soldiers with ranks up to colonel.
“Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity last August due to murder, inhumane acts and mass purges in Cambodia between April 1975 until late 1977.
They appealed the Trial Chamber’s previous decision, claiming that it made hundreds of errors in its judgment.
Some of the crimes for which they were sentenced revolved around the alleged existence of a Khmer Rouge policy to exterminate members of the deposed Lon Nol regime.
In an effort to disprove the existence of such a policy, Chea’s defence team called as its first witness Sao Van.
Van held two positions as a commune chief in the southwest zone: in Sector 13 in Takeo, then in Sector 25 in Kandal following the country’s “liberation” in April of 1975.
He recalled attending two meetings, one in mid-1975 and the other in late 1976, where cadres in the southwest zone were instructed by zone leader Ta Mok and Sector 13 chief Ta Saom.
“We were told that . . . we did not have the authority to decide the life and death of the people and if anyone violated this principle, this individual had to dig a grave for himself.
Foot soldiers up to the rank of colonel were not to be harmed.”
According to him, he was “happy and jubilant” to receive the order but, while he “carried out the instruction”, he could not confirm to what extent others implemented it, or whether the directive changed later on in the regime.
Prior to the liberation, Van also mentioned hearing a radio broadcast delivered by Samphan promising that Lon Nol foot soldiers, ranking officers, bourgeoisie and urban residents would be pardoned as long as they sided with the Khmer Rouge.
He denied any knowledge of killings during the Democratic Kampuchea period.
“I loyally served the regime because of its objectives to defend and build up Cambodia . . . and support its people,” he said.
But despite his loyalty, Van confirmed that he was later demoted from his position as a commune chief after his superiors discovered his brother’s role as a low-level commune official under Lon Nol.
“My brother was sent for re-education but he was not detained.
He was living with his wife and his children . . . and I told him that he had to adapt [his] life to peasantry. I was content with this,” Van said.
Yesterday’s proceedings extended past the scheduled 4pm adjournment as co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian’s examination of the witness was rife with evasive responses, eliciting hostile questioning and several objections from the defence.
The appeal hearing continues today with a new witness.