A FATHER, a doctor who refused to leave his patients after Phnom Penh fell to
the Khmer Rouge. A sister, arrested and tortured in the notorious Tuol Sleng
The deaths of these people are only two of nearly two million
caused by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, but they are the basis of a new
court case in France intended to target surviving KR leaders.
Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary face charges of murder, torture, illegal
detention, and crimes against humanity stemming from the deaths of Raingsi
Tioulong and Son Qui. The suit was filed April 2 with the Tribunal de Grand
Instance in Paris.
"We are not asking for financial compensation," said
plaintiff Antonya Tioulong, Raingsi's sister, by fax from Paris. "I am more
interested in knowing who ordered atrocities to be committed on my sister, why,
and to see those responsible for these atrocities be identified as criminals,
and adequately sentenced, instead of seeing them strutting about like heroes on
According to French procedure, the judge first must decide
if the case is admissible - which could be in a matter of weeks, said Tioulong,
48. If the judge admits the case, the investigation phase begins, which could
include a French investigation team coming to Cambodia to collect
Cambodia has no extradition treaty with France and the
Kingdom's Constitution forbids it. However, the court can issue an international
arrest warrant, which a third country could execute - as in the recent case of
Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in Britain under an
international arrest warrant issued by Spanish courts.
"When my clients
saw what happened with Pinochet, they asked if we could do the same thing here,"
said Francois Zimeray, the lawyer in the case, by telephone from Paris. If
convicted in France, the accused would face life in prison, he said - but
acknowledged that extradition was unlikely. However, trials in absentia are
permitted in France.
"I have great hope that my action will succeed and
that it will end up with a real trial before a French or international court,
leading to a condemnation," Tioulong said. "It is not right to judge Khmer Rouge
leaders in Cambodia. How can I believe in justice in a lawless country ruled by
a former Khmer Rouge? A trial held there would only be a parody."
Tioulong and Son Qui were both French citizens. Son Qui, a doctor, was working
in Calmette Hospital near the French Embassy when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom
Penh in April 1975. He was entitled to leave in the last convoy deporting
foreigners from the embassy, and indeed his son Herve - co-plaintiff in the
court case - went with the convoy, but Son Qui chose instead to
"His behavior was really heroic because he wanted to stay with
his patients," Zimeray said. Dr. Qui was deported from Phnom Penh after the
convoy left and was last heard of in July 1976.
Raingsi Tioulong, a
mother of three, was 31 in 1975, ran a radio program and worked for an American
laboratory. She was expelled from Phnom Penh with the rest of the population.
Cousins who were with her and survived will testify that when the Khmer Rouge
cadre realized her name was Tioulong (her father, Nhiek Tioulong, was a senior
military officer in the 1960's and close to the King) she was treated worse than
Antonya, who was in France in the 1970's and staged a 12-day
hunger strike in 1979 to pressure France into accepting more Cambodian refugees,
returned to Cambodia in 1994. She went to Tuol Sleng to track down her sister's
fate and, in a gruesome daylong search, found Raingsi's "confessions". Tuol
Sleng prisoners were commonly tortured until they admitted to treasonous or
The records from Tuol Sleng's archives show that
Raingsi was accused of having joined the CIA in 1969. They further accuse her of
following a CIA plan "to incite the village population to oppose Angkar" [the KR
regime] and "to organize demonstrations to re-enter Phnom Penh by force" in
Tioulong has submitted the confessions to the Paris
tribunal as evidence. As the deputy director of the documentation department of
L'Express magazine, she said she has many press clips and other evidence she
could add if necessary.
While at Tuol Sleng, she also found the piece of
evidence which upset her most: a stark black-and-white photo of Raingsi,
catalogued with those of the other 17,000 people who died at the torture
"Once I found her picture, I asked an American photographer to
reproduce it: I wanted to organize a Buddhist ceremony for her and to express my
respect and affection for her, " Tioulong said. "Sometimes the only way to cope
with feelings of [revulsion] is to pray."
Attorney Zimeray says the case
faces several legal challenges: the statute of limitations in France for these
charges is only 10 years; he has no papers to verify Raingsi's French
citizenship (her nationality gives French courts jurisdiction over the case);
and the statute against crimes against humanity was enacted in 1994, long after
the crimes were committed.
However, Zimeray said he will argue that
although crimes against humanity as such did not exist in 1975, the underlying
crimes (such as murder, forced labor, or gross ill-treatment) had long been
codified in French law. And he believes he can prove Raingsi's
As for the statute of limitations problem, Zimeray said
there is French precedent that the clock only begins to tick once a body is
actually found. Since Son Qui and Raingsi Tioulong's bodies will probably never
be found, the statute of limitations has not run out.
"My goal will be
reached if the investigation starts and leads to the impossibility for all Khmer
Rouge leaders to stay in any other country than Cambodia," said Zimeray, who has
been interested in Cambodian affairs since being shocked by TV footage of
refugees in 1979.
Zimeray also mentioned that several other French
citizens who lost family under the Khmer Rouge have approached him about joining
the action. He said he would allow them to join once he reviewed their
Meanwhile, a judge has been appointed in a separate but similar
case brought by 23 Belgian-Khmers against Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary
in Belgium. In addition, Belgian law allows other plaintiffs to join the suit
and French plaintiffs are also interested in joining the Belgian
Zimeray said the Tioulong-Son case would remain separate,
"If our legal action were to fail, that would be a revolting
shame," Tioulong said. "Which message would be sent to the younger generations,
not only in Cambodia but also around the world? Can we convince them that a
handful of butchers were allowed to murder 1.7 million fellow compatriots with
total impunity? And that it was enough for them to say 'sorry' to be absolved?"