Nuon Chea, the most senior surviving leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, was arrested at his Pailin home Wednesday morning and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes by Khmer Rouge tribunal judges.
“We have a big fish,” said Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. “This is what people have been waiting for,” he said.
About 70 police surrounded Nuon Chea’s small wooden home in Sala Krao district’s Spar Prum village shortly after 6 am and searched his home before driving him, under police escort, to a waiting RCAF helicopter nearby.
The helicopter departed Pailin around 10 am and landed at Phnom Penh’s military airbase around 11:30, Deputy National Police Chief Mao Chandara said. Shortly before noon, a convoy of about eight cars slipped into the southern gate of the ECCC’s headquarters, neatly avoiding a scrum of over 40 reporters.
In a statement late Tuesday, co-investigating judges from the ECCC said they had charged Nuon Chea and placed him in provisional detention. Details of his detention order will be released shortly, they said.
Reach Sambath said Wednesday afternoon that Nuon Chea had yet to retain any lawyers, and made only an initial appearance before the court Wednesday.
Witnesses said that the arrest occurred without incident, but officials said that 10 judicial police officers from Phnom Penh, 90 military police from Pailin municipality, and an additional 50 Pailin policemen were on hand in case of trouble.
“There was no problem. We prepared the officers in case there was a problem,” said Pailin municipal military police chief Chheang Song.
This is the first new arrest the court has made since it began its work over a year ago.
On July 31, tribunal judges transferred Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, who had already served eight years in a Phnom Penh military prison, to its detention center and charged him with crimes against humanity. Co-investigating judges are currently building cases against three other suspects thought to be responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Their names have not been released publicly, but speculation has focused on Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, his wife, Ieng Thirith, and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan.
Pressure has been building inside and outside the court for further signs of progress in the long-delayed efforts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. The $56.3 million tribunal is already facing budgetary shortfalls and plans to launch a fundraising campaign next month.
Nuon Chea, 82, was Pol Pot’s most trusted deputy, and a member of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s Central and Standing Committees—the most senior bodies responsible for party policy. Historians say he played a key role in the Khmer Rouge security apparatus, approving the systematic torture and execution of some 14,000 people at the notorious S-21 prison. He remained active in the Khmer Rouge until his defection in 1998, after Pol Pot’s death.
“His involvement is clear as daylight,” said Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang, adding: “Nuon Chea claimed that we—the public—have written wrong history about Democratic Kampuchea. Now the time has come for him to share his version of the history of Democratic Kampuchea in front of the court of law.”
Nuon Chea has said that as a leader he is responsible for the work of the Khmer Rouge regime, but he denies that he committed any crimes. He says he knew nothing of the tortures at Tuol Sleng, which he says were the work of Duch and late Khmer Rouge Defense Minister Son Sen.
Speaking at his home Tuesday night, the eve of his arrest, Nuon Chea said he was ready to bear witness at the court.
“I have prepared myself for seven years to fight in the court,” he said. “My idea is to fight for justice, not only for me, but for all Cambodian people, and all of Democratic Kampuchea.”
He added that he suspects Duch has spoken badly of him to tribunal officials because of a business dispute the two had in 1990. “I know Duch accuses me because he’s not happy with me,” he said.
Nuon Chea had freshly laundered and ironed five shirts to bring with him to Phnom Penh—“in order to not allow those people to look down on me,” he explained—which he packed along with his high blood pressure medication and extra trousers.
He suffered diarrhea Tuesday night.
According to the minutes of the search conducted Wednesday morning, a copy of which were given to Nuon Chea’s wife, Ly Kimseng, the investigative team was comprised of four judicial police officials—Brigadier General In Bora, Colonel Mao Dara, Lieutenant Colonel Sin Sitha and Major Keng Bunny—and four tribunal investigators—Svay Samnang, Mike Dixon, Sok Khavan and Stephen Heder. They confiscated several books, including two handwritten journals, 20 cassette tapes, and 10 photo albums, among other items.
Ly Kimseng said most of the cassettes were of Khmer music, some of the songs written by Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Why did they take them?” she said. “It’s nothing, just songs.”
She said she was upset investigators had torn through the house, leaving it a mess.
She said when Nuon Chea left, around 9:30, he walked past the fruit trees surrounding their home, directly to the waiting police convoy, never looking back. “Now he left me. I am alone,” she said. “I feel so sad.”
Their son, Nuon Say, watched the departure from his nearby home, catching a final glimpse of his father’s face from the window of the car that carried Nuon Chea over a rutted laterite road to the waiting helicopter.
“His face is not worried or sad,” he said. “It’s like he’s going to visit somewhere, like a tourist.”
Onlookers lined the road and several hundred gathered at the field around the waiting helicopter to watch their long-time neighbor make his historic journey.
Many commended Nuon Chea as gentle and polite. Villager Sous Saroeun said she was dismayed by “grandpa” Nuon Chea’s departure, as she watched the helicopter prepare for take off. “He’s very old. He’s waiting only for death,” she said.
Another neighbor, Kim Hy, who said her husband was executed by the Khmer Rouge, raised both her hands as the helicopter departed. “Please go, be lucky, be healthy and come back,” she said.
Nuon Chea’s five-year-old grandson, Vin, who usually visits everyday, said he was upset police had barred him from his grandfather’s house Wednesday morning. “The police are cruel and have black hearts,” he said.
Rumors of Nuon Chea’s imminent arrest began to leak out of the court over the weekend. On Tuesday, a military police official called around, trying to sell the story of Nuon Chea’s imminent arrest to foreign journalists.
Pailin Municipal Deputy Governor Keut Sothea, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, said few were surprised by the arrest. “People are busy making their living. They are not interested in the court’s invitation,” Keut Sothea said.
“After integration, I stopped thinking of the past. I am living under the government’s roof,” he said, adding that he hopes the tribunal will provide some closure to the nation, and, importantly, make people stop discriminating against former Khmer Rouge. “We should stop thinking about the old stories and think about something new, ahead,” he said.
Nuon Chea requested fish and steamed rice for lunch Wednesday, his first meal in custody, a court official said. But the court was out of fish and offered him chicken instead.
(Reporting by Thet Sambath in Pailin, Erika Kinetz and Yun Samean in Phnom Penh)