Testimony related to charges of genocide began for the first time at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, with the calling of witness It Sen.
Sen, 63, is a member of the Cham ethnic minority, whose alleged systematic persecution forms part of the basis for genocide charges brought against co-accused Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. A large contingency of Cham was present in the public gallery yesterday to follow the proceedings.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Kampong Cham province, which held the highest Cham population, persecution began immediately.
“They forced the Cham women to cut their hair short” Sen said. “We were not allowed to practise our prayers.”
In addition to their practice of Islam, Cham are identifiable by their unique dress and language, which they were forced to abandon in favour of Khmer and the black uniforms of Democratic Kampuchea.
“When the Khmer Rouge took control, they forced us to speak Khmer and not the Cham language and that happened from 1971-72,” Sen recounted, adding that “if they happened to hear us speaking the Cham language, we would be taken away and killed”.
The Cham were also made to abandon their halal dietary guidelines, and were “forced to eat pork meat”, Sen recalled:
“Qurans had been collected and burned,” he added.
An estimated 36 per cent of Cambodia’s Cham population died under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Sen lost his brothers, his wife and his children, surviving himself by escaping a detention facility, only to witness the murder of his kin.
“The wives were killed separately, the single unmarried ladies killed separately, the men killed separately,” Sen said.
Prior to Sen’s testimony, Samphan defender Anita Guisse issued her team’s response to the prosecution’s document presentations – presentations that both defence teams declined to make in an act of protest – lecturing judges on the purpose of “adversarial debate”, and the role of document hearings.
Guisse launched into a recurring criticism of the prosecution’s use of “written records of interview” (WRIs), which the defence contends are non-cross examinable evidence.
“We feel there is weak probative value here” Guisse said of the disputed documents, which she also characterised as being “unreliable” and often “drastically different” from actual witness testimony.