At the detention centre for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, former Khmer Rouge senior leader Nuon Chea goes to bed early, sometimes before 9pm, and his meals include regular helpings of tofu.
His co-defendant, Khieu Samphan, the former head of state for the same regime as Chea under which nearly two million Cambodians perished from 1975 to 1979, is working on a writing project to debunk a well-known book about the post-Khmer Rouge era. When he’s finished for the day, he occasionally hops on a stationary exercise bicycle.
The details of the two octogenarians’ daily lives are included in a health assessment performed late last month and obtained by the Post this week.
The assessment, full of tidbits both mundane, such as Chea’s ongoing gout problems, and revealing, such as Samphan’s fluent use of the English language in his interviews with doctors, paints a more comprehensive picture of the defendants’ health.
Both men were deemed fit to stand trial, but this wasn’t much of a surprise. Rather, it’s the overall upbeat tone that stands out.
Chea’s health appears to have improved, while Samphan’s mental health was “excellent” for a man of his age.
The final report, marked “strictly confidential”, wraps up two days of tests last week on 87-year-old Chea, Brother Number 2 to Pol Pot, and 83-year-old Samphan, who has frequently claimed he was only a figurehead during the bloody Khmer Rouge era. Both dispute the charges levied against them in the war crimes court.
The trial chamber ordered the physical and psychiatric assessment to determine whether the two ageing defendants are physically and mentally fit to stand trial as the court’s Case 002 transitions into its next segment.
So far, because of the court’s decision to split Case 002 into different phases for fear that the age and health of the defendants would preclude hearing one lengthy, drawn-out trial containing all charges, only the first “mini-trial”, referred to as 002/01, has concluded. A verdict is due in around June.
Because of the age of those brought before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), health has been a pragmatic concern.
Ieng Thirith, the former minister of social affairs, was released on mental health grounds in late 2012. Her husband and co-defendant, Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs, died last year, leaving just Chea and Samphan.
The doctors completed the assessments on March 24 and 25 in a kind of quiet period, when the two defendants had more time to themselves between the first judgment and the next phase of the case.
According to the report, Chea no longer complained of shortness of breath, though he did have a backache and a right ankle that pained him. He can stand with the aid of a walker. Many of his problems, such as slow and stiff joint movements and muscle wasting, are consistent with his age. Recent cataract surgery means that, with glasses, he can read newspapers again.
“His energy level is now much better,” the report states. “At the end of the sessions, he would still looked [sic] quite well and smiles, and complained of only ‘a little backache’. There was an improvement compared to March 2013 when Dr. Fazel last saw him,” the report states, referring to Seena Fazel, a forensic psychiatrist and one of three on the team. The others are Dr Kin Ming Chan, a geriatric specialist, and Dr Lina Huot, a psychiatrist.
“The sessions were stopped because the interviews and examinations were completed and not because Nuon Chea was unable to continue. Therefore, it is our opinion that Nuon Chea could participate in the full duration of the trials with the usual breaks in between,” the doctors wrote.
They said Chea can be transported to court in a wheelchair and that the use of audio-visual facilities from his holding cell isn’t needed. They also recommended a diet without beans, peas, bean curds, soya products, red meat and liver.
“We understand he was given tofu (bean curd products) regularly in his diet,” they wrote.
When the doctors visited Samphan, who was described as being in “good health”, he was working on his computer. He had an exercise bicycle that he pedalled when not exercising outside the cell.
He reads with a magnifying glass, and admitted that when it came to his diet, “he said he ate too much and needed to control himself”.
From 9am to noon, Samphan works, then he has lunch, resuming work at 1pm. Three hours later, he rests, and at 6pm he exercises. He reported sleeping well.
“He was actually reading a book titled Brother Enemy: The War After the War, and said that he was writing to debunk the ‘wrong information’ written in the book,” the doctors wrote, referring to a study by Nayan Chanda of diplomatic relations between several Southeast Asian nations following the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge era.
Though largely positive, the report still offered up many descriptions of decline associated with the elderly. Chea is “frail” and “at risk of de-conditioning with a rapid decline of physical function”. An assistant helped him sit up in bed. The doctors recommend continuing his physical therapy.
Chea can remember his mother’s profession (tailor), but occasionally forgets what he ate for breakfast. Likewise, Samphan can remember the main topic of his thesis when he studied in France (industrial problems in Cambodia), but could sometimes not remember what he did last week or even the day before. The doctors also said his risk of a stroke is higher since he has suffered one in the past.
Prosecutor William Smith declined to comment on the report, due to its strictly confidential nature.
Neither defence team has asserted that its client is unfit to stand trial, but both have requested shorter or less frequent courtroom hearings given their clients’ diminished ability to follow proceedings for long periods, something the health assessment seems to contradict.
The defence for Chea declined to comment yesterday, citing, as Smith did, the confidentiality of the report.
But Kong Sam Onn, the national lawyer for Samphan, said the report contained “a few errors”, and wasn’t completely accurate when it came to his client’s work and exercise schedule.
He also said Samphan could not go whole days in the courtroom with the usual breaks, as the report says.
It’s not only the hours in the courtroom, Sam Onn said, “but he has to work with lawyers and the team”.