The Khmer Rouge Tribunal resumed yesterday, with three surviving leaders of Pol Pot’s regime confronting the UN-endorsed court for crimes against humanity.
The start of Case 002 was low key compared with the first trial, which resulted in the conviction of death camp chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as “Duch”. However, opening arguments presented before the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) were startling, with prosecutors focusing on the immediate forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and urban centers around the country after the Khmer Rouge seized control in April 1975.
The court heard that beatings with rattans, the use of pincers to pull nails, noses and ear lobes, electrocution and suffocation were common after Cambodians were forced into the countryside amid fears by paranoid ultra-Maoists that the cities had become nerve centers for enemies of the Khmer Rouge.
At Sre Ambel, laborers toiled in fields until their legs were eaten away by salt water. But far more grisly forms of torture persisted, including disembowelment and acts of cannibalism. One prisoner had his feet nailed to a board and was ordered to sing while he was beaten. Others had their gall bladders removed, which were then taken to the kitchen. Children aged as young as two or three were swung by their feet and their heads smashed into a tamarind tree.
The packed public gallery also heard how one man was stripped naked to the waist and held by two Khmer Rouge soldiers while a third used a knife to rip open his stomach, his entrails were pulled out and the liver removed while he was still alive.
Two other issues also grabbed the attention of long time observers, evidence about Khmer Rouge behavior that was central to arguments over how involved the hierarchy was with crimes that allegedly took place among the lower ranks.
This involved forced marriages and the construction of a massive airstrip in the central province of Kampong Chhanang, which was funded by and built for the Chinese government, longtime supporters of the Khmer Rouge throughout the Cold War.
Speaking outside the court, Helen Jarvis – a senior advisor to the Cambodian government and a former spokeswoman for the ECCC – noted the Khmer Rouge had “hoodwinked the world” with its puritanical propaganda regarding morality and sex.
Instead, prosecutors told how mass marriages were enforced between strangers in bizarre ceremonies. One involved men and women being forced to line up facing each other, the lights were turned off and they were told to walk towards each other and hold out their hands.
They were forced to marry by the touch of a hand. Women who denied their husbands conjugal rights were shot. Desired young girls and women were given as trophy brides to favored cadre and troops who had been handicapped in battle. Muslims were forced to marry non-Muslims.
There were reportedly hundreds of thousands of forced marriages. Importantly the court was told how the practice was dictated by Pol Pot and his lieutenants as a means of orchestrating total control by wiping out all vestiges of Khmer culture.
Before the court are brother Number Two Nuon Chea, one-time head of state Khieu Samphan, and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary. These three are the last survivors of the original seven-member Standing Committee, responsible for writing and deploying Khmer Rouge government policy. Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith is undergoing further psychiatric examinations after being ruled unfit to stand trial.
Their alleged crimes – including, genocide, murder and torture – stem from the deaths of 1.7 million to 2.2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, between 1975 and January 1979. About 800,000 are thought to have died violently, the rest through malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.
Of broader diplomatic importance was a massive airstrip the Khmer Rouge had undertaken with forced labor. As many as 30,000 people were marched to the site and told to go to work. Conditions were so bad that many opted for suicide, choosing to leap under trucks driving past, hanging, poisoning or drowning. The court was told how every member of the Standing Committee had visited the site. Among them was Khieu Samphan, who urged laborers to work harder.
Inside the tribunal, Khieu Samphan appeared upset at times, and Ieng Sary showed signs of disbelief as prosecutor Andrew Cayley said they had systematically turned Cambodia into a country of unpaid slaves through their unrealistic and irrational policies.
In response, Nuon Chea who had previously sat motionless, dismissed the opening argument as not true before launching into an unrepentant tirade of communist clichés blaming U.S. bombings and Vietnamese designs on Cambodia for policies that arose after they came to power.
He said Vietnam intended to “swallow Cambodia and rip Cambodia of her ethnic race” while noting that a “python only swallows its prey after its suffocated” and “never trust a foreigner.”
He said Cambodian problems were exacerbated by the 1970 coup that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installed U.S.-friendly Lon Nol as leader, which would result in millions of homeless people and enormous shortages of food and medicine while foreign infiltrators were sabotaging the country.
Nuon Chea didn’t mention any of the victims who suffered under Khmer Rouge rule. He simply added in regard to the events that led to Pol Pot coming to power: “The Lon Nol clique couldn’t control this situation at all.”
Case 002 is expected to continue for at least a year.