Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Expert: Chea as culpable as Pol Pot

Expert: Chea as culpable as Pol Pot

Expert: Chea as culpable as Pol Pot


Nuon Chea

DOCUMENTS unearthed in Phnom Penh this week by historian Steve Heder have provided

new insights into the workings of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and could prove damning

for some of the leaders if they are ever brought to trial.

Heder, a lecturer at London's School of Oriental and Asian Studies, has been researching

the documents at the Documentation Center of Cambodia on behalf of the American University

Law School in Washington.

One of his key findings has been evidence to directly link Nuon Chea to murder and


Chea, Pol Pot's number two and briefly prime minister, has always been a shadowy


He might have hoped his defection to the government late last month would have closed

the door on his past, however the documents are providing hard evidence on what till

now was largely supposition.

Heder said there were two types of documents that show the direct links between the

crimes and Chea.

"There are documents coming up from the zones to the center addressed to Pol

Pot or Son Sen which were copied to Nuon Chea, and Ieng Sary in a few cases, and

which talked about executions and torture in the countryside," he said.

"Secondly the Tuol Sleng confessions, some of which were copied by Son Sen to

other people including Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and occasionally Ieng Sary.

"Some of these documents, most notably those copied to Nuon Chea, have notes

from interrogators saying these confessions were obtained under torture. And in the

documents particularly copied to Nuon Chea they spoke of food shortages, executions

and arrests."

Heder also said that the blame for the shift in party policy in the latter half of

1976 to one which saw dissention, imagined or real, dealt with by killings and torture,

fell squarely to Chea.

"People at the top including Nuon Chea, Pol Pot and Son Sen made a decision

with profound implications. Contradictions inside the party were antagonistic problems

to be dealt with by absolute methods," he said.

"That meant more killings in the countryside and blood purges in the party itself."

Chea is not the only person to be mentioned in the documents. Also linked to the

crimes and who are still alive are Ta Mok and Keo Pauk. Heder said the documents

show they were not only aware of what was going on - "guilty knowledge"

- but they also had direct responsibility for crimes.

"You combine the evidence of guilty knowledge with other evidence that shows

or strongly suggests that the zone secretaries - Ta Mok and Keo Pauk - had responsibility

for arrest and execution generally speaking."

But for those that are condemned by Heder's discovery, others have so far fared a

bit better - namely Khieu Samphan, but particularly Ieng Sary.

"The documents show there is a distinction between Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary,"

he said. "Whether they had command responsibility over arrest and execution

is more ambiguous.

"The extent that their positions translated into real power which would allow

them to oppose [the crimes] is much less clear."

Some evidence exists to suggest Samphan was in a position to order arrests and executions

but Heder said nothing had come to light to say definitively that he did so.

Meanwhile Heder said that for Ieng Sary, who has already admitted some knowledge

of the atrocities and was a member of the standing committee, there have been some

positives in the research. "There is documentary evidence and testimony that

suggests Ieng Sary helped some people avoid execution," he said.

Heder said that all the department heads in Sary's Foreign Ministry were at one time

denounced as traitors in Tuol Sleng confessions but most survived. "There are

no other cases where that's happened, and some of those former department heads believe

they were protected."

However, against this, Heder said, was the way the Foreign Ministry was often used

as a holding pen for people recalled from overseas or other departments till they

were sent to S-21.

For others lower in the hierarchy Heder said that there was evidence against some,

but none against others. To prosecute those identified would give a "skewed

result". He added that if they were ever put before a court there would be issues

such as them having acted in fear for their lives.

He said many among the rank-and-file did not know what they were getting into. "Much

of the KR was recruited under a false flag. They didn't join up to commit crimes

against humanity."

Whether Heder's research will ever see the light of day in a court room is a moot


"The problem was, and still is to an extent, that the documentary evidence and

testimony necessary to bring a legal case is increasingly available but there is

still a considerable way to go and that will not be done until there is a movement

towards a venue and funding," Heder said. "Real justice ain't cheap and

it ain't quick either.

"What I have been doing is shoestring stuff compared to what should happen if

we were to have a properly funded prosecutorial team following up every lead."

Heder would like to see some more commitment from the international community to

a trial, particularly in light of the Cambodian government's position.

"We have already seen that the Royal Cambodian government and both the Prime

Minister [Hun Sen] and the acting Head of State [Chea Sim] don't hold strong convictions

based on principal on this issue. They are susceptible to pleas, pressures and inducements.

"For this reason it is important for the international community to make their

views known and the same for the Cambodian people."

But in addition to political will there are other practical considerations to be

taken into account.

"The documentary evidence is useful, even essential, for any indictment or trial.

"However, one does not decide just on documents, but on witnesses also,"

he said.

"The documents don't answer all the questions but we shouldn't be worried if

we don't find a smoking gun. Gaps [in the evidence] are par for the course.

"Money for a trial would bring a more professional legal effort and those gaps

can be closed."

Heder believes his views will coincide with those of the UN legal experts currently

looking at trial options. He hoped if they did concur it would provide the impetus

to keep the trial idea alive, to be picked up by the international community.

"The UN wheels will continue to turn and it is important that the international

community can provide more money and make sure the wheels are financially well oiled,"

he said.

One of the key aspects of a trial would be the clarification of what actually happened

during the Khmer Rouge regime. "A trial will kick in the funding and with more

resources more truth will emerge. In the absence of that we will all be left guessing

how, why, and who was responsible."

Heder said he believed that knowledge may be more important than vengeance. "It

is not absolutely clear that international standards require punishment," he

said. "If there were good moral, political or legal reasons to amnesty some

or most of those found guilty then that maybe the right thing to do."

"And that is where anything from the Second World War to France's colonization

- historical mitigating circumstances - might come into play."

But all that is presupposing a trial.

Heder believed there was the grassroots will among Cambodians to pursue the KR leaders.

"People have a very static notion of what is possible in Cambodia. Traditions

are invented and have to be started at some point in history.

"It is clear there is some basis among Cambodians to start that tradition -

be it young keen Cambodian human rights lawyers, human rights investigators in the

UN center, or researchers in the Documentation Center of Cambodia, or people in the


"There is enough support out there to invent this tradition," Heder said.


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