by Suy Se and Sally Mairs
Breaking into a broad smile, former Khmer Rouge cadre Im Chaem describes the relief she has felt since her baptism – part of a new spiritual journey for the 75-year-old after she dodged charges of crimes against humanity.
“My mind is fresh and open with blessings from God,” the frail but sharp-tongued grandmother told AFP from her stilted wooden home in a village outside Anlong Veng, the dusty Cambodian border town where the Khmer Rouge fought their last battles.
From radical communism to Buddhism and now Christianity, Im Chaem’s latest conversion marks another twist in a tumultuous life.
She was until recently facing charges of murder, enslavement, imprisonment and other “inhumane acts” linked to her time as a district official for the Khmer Rouge, a Maoist movement that brutally persecuted the religious and the educated in pursuit of an agrarian “utopia” in the late 1970s.
But the case was unceremoniously dropped by a UN-backed court last year, renewing criticism of government efforts to block further prosecutions against former regime members who still populate every rung of society.
In an unlikely turn, Im Chaem’s conversion this January was the work of a man who says he toiled in one of the forced labour camps she oversaw.
The pastor, Christopher LaPel, survived the gruelling ordeal and eventually escaped the regime that killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population between 1975-79 – including his parents and siblings.
Four decades later on a missionary trip in his Buddhist-majority homeland, LaPel saw Im Chaem’s name in the news.
“In my heart I felt that I would like to meet her,” US-based LaPel said. “I just wanted to tell her that Jesus loves her and I love her too.”
LaPel, who has worked with other ex-Khmer Rouge converts, visited his former oppressor several times last year, bringing small gifts and holding prayer sessions.
Im Chaem says she embraced the new faith after seeing how it cured her son of a chronic illness.
Since then she has held Sunday services in an abandoned rice mill next to her home, fitted with red plastic chairs for pews, a wooden lectern and Khmer-language bibles.
The septuagenarian, who enjoys gardening and spends mornings picking cashew nuts in a plot behind her house, also feels redeemed by the dismissal of her mass murder case.
Like many ex-cadres, Im Chaem fled to the jungle after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and later settled in Anlong Veng, the movement’s last stronghold.
After the area was brought under government control in 1998, she resumed her political career, serving as a local official for the ruling party, the Cambodia People’s Party.
But her past was publicly unearthed in 2015 when the UN-backed tribunal charged her in absentia with crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities at a prison and work site she oversaw as secretary of Preah Netr Preah district.
A prosecution document said some 40,000 people died from executions, starvation and overwork at the largest prison, Phnom Trayoung, between 1977 and 1979.
In a heavily redacted report explaining the case’s dismissal, judges questioned that figure but noted Im Chaem, who was deployed to the region to “purge” traitors, had authority over the prison and other security centres and labour camps.
They ruled to drop the charges because she was not one of regime’s most “senior” or “most responsible” leaders. An appeal is now pending.
The Phnom Penh-based tribunal, which combines elements of Cambodian and international law and includes local and foreign judges, opened in 2006 with a remit to try top Khmer Rouge cadres.
But it has been plagued by controversy from the start.
More than a decade later, the court has only convicted three men, with several defendants dying before they could be brought to justice.
Efforts to reach further down the ladder have been openly opposed by strongman Hun Sen – a Khmer Rouge commander before he defected – who has warned that additional prosecutions could ignite fresh unrest.
For Youk Chhang, a Khmer Rouge victim who has devoted his life to documenting that dark chapter of history, the court’s dismissal was disappointing.
“Of course there are different levels of [responsibility], but they were all part of the system responsible for the deaths of two million of the population,” he said.
Judges said the decision to drop Im Chaem’s case was a matter of jurisdiction and did not exonerate her. They admitted the court’s limited purview created an “impunity gap” for lower-level perpetrators.
Yet Im Chaem has taken the ruling as vindication.
She still defends her former bosses, insisting she believes they were unaware of abuses carried out on the ground.
She added that the charges against her were also “not true” but had not sullied her spirit.
“If I am gold, even if you pull me into a muddy pit, I am still gold,” she explained, adding that she was ready to forgive her accusers and move on.