The UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal’s investigating judges yesterday took the unprecedented step of dismissing the case against former Khmer Rouge cadre Im Chaem, a move that was welcomed by her defence team but lamented by victims of the brutal regime.
Judges yesterday found Chaem was “neither a senior leader”, nor one of those “most responsible” for the crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge, and was therefore outside of the court’s jurisdiction.
The regime’s ultra-Maoist policies and wanton executions led to the loss of some 1.7 million lives between 1975 and 1979.
Chaem, allegedly the former district leader of Preah Netr Preah district in Banteay Meanchey province, stood accused of a raft of crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination and enslavement charges that have now been dismissed.
Her lawyers, Bit Seanglim and Wayne Jordash, welcomed the “landmark decision” in her case, known as Case 004/01.
“[D]espite these regrettable circumstances and after almost ten years of investigation, our client welcomes the dismissal of all charges,” they said in a statement.
“She has always denied every allegation and [yesterday’s] decision is a significant step towards vindicating her and clearing her name.”
However, they said there were “no winners” in such cases.
“As was crystal clear from any reasoned view of the evidence and the law, this was not a case that the International Co-Prosecutor ought to have pursued and it has cost our client dearly.”
Efforts to reach Chaem, who appeared to adopt a more itinerant lifestyle after she was charged in 2015, were unsuccessful yesterday.
The case has long been under the shadow of political pressure. The government had made no secret of the fact that it did not want her case – along with Cases 003 and 004 against Meas Muth, Yim Tith and Ao An – to go ahead.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former deputy regiment commander in the East Zone, where Cham Muslim civilians were killed, has previously said prosecuting those cases would spark civil war.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin yesterday stressed the government had “no authority over the Khmer Rouge tribunal case”, while government spokesperson Phay Siphan deferred questions to Keo Remy, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, who could not be reached.
There is scope for appeal, but international prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian yesterday declined to comment until the full decision – which will not be released to the public – was complete.
Previous court documents show Koumjian was at odds with his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, who believed Chaem’s case should not be prosecuted for the same reasons handed down by the judges yesterday.
Hong Kimsoun, a lawyer for civil parties – recognised victims of the regime – said the decision was regrettable.
“I regret to hear that her case is dismissed. She’s [one of] the ‘most responsible’, for her role during Khmer Rouge era,” he said.
“At that time, people were starved to death, they worked in forced labour and they were sent to prison and tortured. She was involved in mass killings in Preah Netr Preah district where people were forced to overwork by making dams.”
Kimsoun said he was representing some 700 victims in Chaem’s case, but all of those civil party applications relating to her will be dismissed. Civil party lawyers can only appeal the decision if an appeal is lodged by the prosecution, and the timeframe for such an appeal remained unclear yesterday.
Kimsoun added the case was not just professional, but personal.
“I am upset [about it]. I am also a victim of the Khmer Rouge, and I was forced to work at dams,” he said. “I myself saw Im Chaem clearly watching us making a dam,” he said, adding he fell seriously ill at the time from overwork.
Poipet resident Sem Sokhon, 57, said he lived in Chaem’s district during the regime. In his immediate family of seven, only he survived. When the Khmer Rouge discovered Sokhon’s father was an official of the former Lon Nol regime, they took him for “re-education” to Phnom Leap mountain. Not suspecting ill-intent, his mother and three siblings followed.
“They were all killed together,” Sokhon said, adding he only escaped the same fate because he was sent to a worksite. His other brother starved to death.
“It is unjust, unjust, unjust. I could not accept this decision,” he said. “It is like breaking open the wound.”
Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, was also a victim of forced labour in Chaem’s district, he said. “I was arrested by the Khmer Rouge; I picked up a piece of mushroom in the rice fields to feed my pregnant sister,” he said, saying he was beaten for the “crime”.
“That is something I will never forget.”
Nevertheless, he said he respected the court’s decision.
“We must accept the decision by the judge. They must follow the rules and the evidence, [even if] it is difficult to take,” he said.
Ngoun Lim, 46, a district administrator in Anlong Veng, where Chaem lives, thanked the court for dropping the case.
Lim said when court officials went to meet with Chaem – with “hundreds of other” ex-Khmer Rouge cadres and their families present – they all begged the court not to pursue the case.
“We are now living under our government; we live in peace and believe in harmonisation,” Lim said.
Trial observer Heather Ryan said it was encouraging to see the court resolving the ongoing cases 003 and 004, which have been pending since 2009, but said the decision in Chaem’s case should not be read as an indication for what might happen for Muth, Tith and An.
“[I]t is difficult to make any predictions from the dismissal of the Im Chaem case about the resolution by the international investigating judge of the remaining Case 003 and 004 accused,” she said.
David Scheffer, the UN secretary-general’s special expert for the tribunal, said yesterday’s decision was “not surprising”, and reflected that the court was functioning according to its rules.
“A dismissal of charges is available under the rules following exhaustive investigations just as an acquittal is possible after a full trial. Neither outcome is a waste of funds in the pursuit of justice,” he said.
“The work of the [tribunal] is not, however, finished regarding three other charged individuals.”
Pending KRT cases
Case 003: Meas Muth
Charges: Muth is alleged to have been commander of the navy, army secretary of divisions 2 and 164, secretary of Kampong Som town, and a representative of the Military General Staff in Kratie. He is charged with genocide; crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture and persecution; and other inhumane acts, such as forced labour, forced marriage and rape. Muth’s case is also important to US observers, due to his alleged role in the Mayaguez incident, in which 41 American servicemen lost their lives.
Status: Investigation closed in January. A closing order, which will either indict him or dismiss the charges, is expected in July.
Case 004/02: Ao An
Charges: For his alleged role as secretary of the Central Zone, An is charged with genocide of the Cham Muslim minority; crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment and torture; as well as persecution of the so-called “17 April people”, former Lon Nol soldiers, Central Zone cadres, their families and subordinates, and other “bad elements”. He is also charged with other inhumane acts such as forced marriage, rape, enforced disappearances, physical abuse, forced labour and inhumane conditions of detention.
Status: The investigation was closed and the case severed into 004/02 in December. A closing order, which will either indict him or dismiss the charges, is expected in June.
Case 004: Yim Tith
Charges: As acting secretary of the Northwest Zone, Tith is accused of committing genocide of the Khmer Krom; crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment and torture; as well as persecution against the so-called “17 April people”, “East Zone Evacuees”, Northwest Zone cadres, their families and subordinates, and the Khmer Krom and Vietnamese. Now a wealthy businessman, he is married to Ong Ken, sister of deceased high-ranking Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok.
Status: He appeared before the court and was officially charged in December 2015. The investigation is ongoing.