Charges of genocide were heard for the first time on Monday at the Khmer Rouge tribunal as the Trial Chamber began the next phase of Case 002/02 against defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, which will focus on the treatment of Cham Muslims during the Pol Pot era.
The 2010 closing order for Case 002, which recognizes the Cham as a distinct ethnic and religious group, alleges that the Communist Party of Kampuchea—in which the two surviving defendants were senior figures—initiated a policy to target, identify, gather and kill Cambodia’s Cham population.
The order alleges that 36 percent of the Cham population died during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
It Sen, 63, who works on a cashew plantation in Tbong Khmum province, swearing on a copy of the Quran to tell the truth in front of the court as an “Islamic believer,” became the first witnesses to testify before the Trial Chamber relating to the genocide charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Asked by Assistant International Prosecutor Dale Lysak to explain to the court what it meant to be Cham, Mr. Sen said the Cham followed the Quran and had their own language.
Mr. Sen told the court that when Khmer Rouge soldiers arrived in his village in Kompong Cham province, the traditional Cham way of life ended.
“No more prayers. No more religion,” he said, adding that those who continued to practice Islam were arrested. Qurans were collected and burned, he said.
“We were not allowed to speak Cham anymore. Only Khmer was allowed,” Mr. Sen said. “If they heard us speaking Cham, we would be taken away and killed.”
The witness told the court that following a violent uprising by Cham residents of Koh Phal island on the Mekong River in 1975, and a severe retaliation by the Khmer Rouge, Cham people throughout the province were forcibly integrated into Khmer villages, but were not victims of violence.
After 1978, when Southwest Zone soldiers took over the East Zone, conditions for the Cham changed for the worse. He said members of Cham communities in the province were ordered to Trea village on the bank of the Mekong and told that they would receive no more food in their home villages.
According to Mr. Sen, Trea village turned out to be a security center and execution site.
Men and women were separated, tied up and kept in separate houses throughout the village. Peeping through cracks in the walls and into adjacent buildings, Mr. Sen said he could see that they were full of Cham.
“I saw very clearly that Cham people were being walked away to the river…. Once the Cham people reached the river, they were told to board the motorboat, and they drove those people into the river,” he said. “No screaming, no crying. It was quiet.”
Mr. Sen said he avoided the same fate by prying up a floorboard as others in his stilt house were being tied up, crawling to some nearby bushes and swimming across the Mekong, eventually making his way back to his home village.
“I never saw my wife again,” he said.