Former brother number two Nuon Chea gave a rare address at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday in a bid to explain the broader causes behind the harsh treatment of suspected enemy spies at the infamous S-21 prison, particularly the Vietnamese.
Reading from stapled sheets of paper that shook in his hands, Chea said he was compelled to speak in response to former S-21 guard testimonies of influxes of prisoners in 1977 and 1978, which Chea said was due to military clashes with the Vietnamese and scouring traitors from the East and Northwest zones.
“I want to explain more about the conflicts between Cambodia and Vietnam and about prisoners’ activities in Cambodia . . . I think it is very important to what we are discussing in this court,” he said.
Chea gave a timeline of military challenges to Democratic Kampuchea, from US forces bombing the Sihanoukville port in 1975, through repeated border clashes and incursions from Vietnam, until “everything came to a head in 1978” with a failed coup d’état led by upper-echelon Khmer Rouge cadre Vorn Vet.
In an attempt to topple the regime, Chea continued, senior cadre defected – with current President of the National Assembly Heng Samrin chief among them – and joined with Vietnamese troops to control part of the East Zone, putting pressure on the regime.
Chea claimed the Democratic Kampuchea leadership held back from armed conflict with Vietnam at first but changed their stance to stop Vietnam “swallowing Cambodia”.
After Chea’s statement, former S-21 guard Prak Khan took the stand, describing keeping prisoners on the brink of death during his time as an interrogator at the prison’s “chewing unit”.
“Those who were already tortured exhaustively . . . were sent to my unit so we would chew for more information,” he said. “The instruction from the upper echelon [was] that we had to do everything to keep our prisoner alive so we would obtain the confession.”
He described burning genitals, water-boarding, pulling nails with pliers, near-suffocation with plastic bags and beatings with branches as methods of extracting confessions.
The trial chamber also debated the liberal use of the word “torture” – which has a specific legal definition distinct from “inhumane and degrading treatment” – and noted the difficulty of distinguishing this nuance in the Khmer language.
Khan continues his testimony today.