DILI, East Timor — The most senior surviving member of the genocidal Khmer Rouge leadership has been arrested at his home in rural Cambodia, close to the Thai border.
Nuon Chea, known by his Orwellian nom de guerre “Brother No. 2,” will face trial for crimes against humanity at the United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal established in Cambodia last year.
He was Pol Pot’s right-hand man during the 1975-1979 reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, during which almost 2 million people perished due to starvation, disease, enslavement, or execution, all in the name of utopian agrarian reforms, of which Chea was a central architect. Formal education, property rights, religious profession and currency were all abolished, as the Khmer Rouge sought to turn the country into a large-scale collective farm-cum-labor camp before being overthrown by an invading Vietnamese army in 1979. The number of people killed due the relentless brutality under the ultra-Maoists amounted to almost 20 percent of the population of Cambodia.
As Chea was led to the helicopter deployed to fly him to Phnom Penh to face trial, a neighbor told Agence France-Presse that “he was shaking, he looked like his legs would collapse.” A penchant for Gucci sunglasses aside, Chea lived austerely in a wooden jungle house.
The $50 million U.N. tribunal has been undermined so far by delays and slow implementation. Trials are not likely to begin until next year, and with Chea now a frail 82, and only one other suspect arrested, it remains to be seen whether Cambodians will receive justice for the mass human suffering and death caused by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot — Brother No. 1 — died in custody in 1998.
The other tribunal indictee is Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. “Duch,” who ran the S21 detention centre in Phnom Penh, site of the torture and murder of almost 20,000 men, women and children.
Four others are under investigation by the tribunal. While these names have not been released, it is believed that former President Khieu Samphan, a neighbor of Chea’s in the Thai borderland, is on the list.
Current Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge member, as are many of his government colleagues. The tribunal took nine years to establish, apparently because the government sought to ensure the virtual immunity of many senior officials who were mid or low-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge.
The tribunal, properly known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), is a mixed Cambodian-U.N. entity. Only those “most responsible for serious crimes” will be tried — likely to be fewer than 10 and guilty verdicts require a “super-majority” of 4 out of 5 judges — 3 Cambodian and 2 international. The hybrid national-international nature of the tribunal is redolent of other initiatives, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
However while the west African tribunal has netted big fish such as Liberia’s former warlord President Charles Taylor, the Cambodian ECCC has been further jeopardized by Cambodian government disbandment threats, as the officials believe any ECCC attempt to have Cambodia’s retired King Sihanouk testify would amount to discrediting the monarchy. The former King has immunity from prosecution under the Cambodian constitution.
But now it seems the U.N.-backed tribunal is slipping into gear, and for Cambodians, the sight of Brother No. 2 being led away to stand trial will doubtless be a cathartic moment.
Simon Roughneen has worked as a journalist in Sudan and across Africa, and for the U.N. Mission in East Timor.
See also: this podcast about the tribunal, and this interview with an investigator of the Cambodian genocide. For more on the Sierra Leone tribunal, see this article.
For more Cambodia coverage, see the WPR archives.