It isn’t very often that a person realizes their dreams when they are at the right age to do something about them. My friend Corinne Purtill is one of those people. Everything came together at the right time, and now she’s in Cambodia, working on a book and telling the stories that the world needs to hear about. This is serious stuff — it’s why I tried to be a journalist, and why she’s doing it. I love her for it.
Here is today’s dispatch from Corinne in Phnom Penh: the most senior surviving member of the Khmer Rouge made his first appearance at Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal.
Justice Delayed: KR Leader Makes Brief Court Appearance
By Corinne Purtill
PHNOM PENH – The top surviving member of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge appeared publicly Monday for the first time at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal for the bloody 1970s communist guerrilla regime.
Nuon Chea, 81, appeared alert and answered questions in a clear voice as his lawyers argued successfully for a postponement of the pre-trial hearing, citing his lack of eligible foreign defense counsel.
The delay angered many Cambodians in the public viewing room, some of whom had traveled for miles to witness the prosecution of the living man they believe is most directly responsible for the murders of their loved ones.
“I’m not satisfied,” said Sok Sour, 68, whose husband Phann Sopha was executed by the Khmer Rouge in Prey Veng province in 1977. “I felt angry seeing his face on the screen, protected by lots of bodyguards, sitting in an air conditioned room. I suffered too much from what they did to us.”
Nuon Chea was expected to ask to be released on bail from the detention facility adjacent to the courtroom, where he has been held since his arrest Sept. 19. He is one of five defendants currently on trial for war crimes committed during the 1975 to 1979 ultra-Maoist regime. He will stay in jail while the hearing is rescheduled, co-prosecutor Robert Petit said.
“Any delay in getting to the truth of this matter and getting justice for the victims is regrettable,” Petit said.
Known as “Brother Number Two,” Nuon Chea was Pol Pot’s most trusted deputy and is credited with helping orchestrate the party’s bloody purges of those deemed a threat to the revolution.
The Khmer Rouge emptied cities and drove the Cambodian population into work camps as part of a radical social upheaval. Roughly 1.7 million Cambodians died during the period from starvation, execution, disease and overwork.
Khmer Rouge chief Pol Pot died in 1998. Nuon Chea officially left the Khmer Rouge later that year and has since lived as a private citizen near the Thai border. In media reports in recent years he has defended his role in the Khmer Rouge, but denied knowledge of murders.
Cows wandered across the grounds of the court complex on Phnom Penh’s outskirts as spectators filed into Monday’s hearing, which took just more than two hours and gave hints of the political undertones that have dogged the court since its inception.
Dressed in a long-sleeved blue buttondown, his white hair neatly brushed, Nuon Chea addressed the judges directly to ask that the hearing be adjourned.
“If this proceeding goes ahead, I believe it is not fair for me,” he read in Khmer from a prepared statement.
Defense lawyers asked to suspend the hearing because one of Nuon Chea’s two foreign defense attorneys, Victor Koppe of the Netherlands, had not yet been sworn into the Cambodian Bar Association and thus could not argue before the court.
His other foreign attorney, Dutch lawyer Michiel Pestman, was in Amsterdam and could not attend, Koppe said. Tribunal rules allow each defendant to have both Cambodian and foreign counsel.
Bar officials on Friday postponed Koppe’s swearing-in, saying he violated bar rules by signing a legal document before his admission.
Koppe said he believed the bar was retaliating against his motion to disqualify pre-trial judge Ney Thol for political bias.
Ney Thol has issued several controversial rulings in recent years that appeared to favor the interests of Cambodia’s ruling party. Pre-trial judges voted unanimously Monday to dismiss the removal motion.
The aborted hearing is the latest delay in a trial that has slogged along for decades.
The $56.3 million tribunal was formed in 2006 after years of contentious negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government. Two independent audits last year found serious evidence of mismanagement and shoddy hiring practices on the Cambodian side of the hybrid court.
The tribunal is running several million dollars over budget, according to auditors, and international donors say they want to see major reforms before chipping in.
Nuon Chea is one of five aging former Khmer Rouge cadres awaiting trial. Top-ranking officials Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith were arrested late last year. Kaing Guek Iev, also known as Duch, the director of the notorious torture center S-21, was arrested in 1999.
The slow proceedings frustrated Aun Phum, 77, who lost 19 members of his family to the Khmer Rouge and traveled to Monday’s hearing from Kompong Speu province.
“The court only considered the charged person’s interest,” he said. “What about the other people here?”