Former Khmer Rouge navy chief Meas Muth and district commander Im Chaem on Wednesday remained defiant after the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) announced Tuesday they had been charged with crimes against humanity, while victims of the regime and their families welcomed the move.
Meas Muth, who is accused of purging his own soldiers and killing Vietnamese, Thai and other foreigners captured at sea, was also charged with war crimes related to his roles in the Southwest Zone and in Cambodian waters.
Contacted by telephone Wednesday, the ex-navy chief said he was more concerned with farming his crops at his home in Battambang province’s Samlot district, near the Thai border, than any action being taken by the ECCC in Phnom Penh.
“It [is] up to them, whatever they say,” he said when read the charges against him, which include extermination, enslavement and persecution on political grounds.
“I am concerned with planting my corn and cassava,” he added. “Now, I ask, who died? Where did I exterminate [people]?”
Meas Muth, who gave his age as in his 80s, said he agreed with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent proclamation that any further cases at the ECCC could spark civil war by encouraging ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers to return to the maquis. He declined to say whether or not he would appear at the court.
Im Chaem, who was based in Banteay Meanchey province during the regime, is accused of coordinating purges and executions in the Northwest Zone and faces charges for crimes allegedly committed at a security center and worksite.
Now living in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng district, Im Chaem said by telephone Wednesday that there was no reason she should answer to the tribunal.
“I absolutely do not accept [the charges]. I did nothing wrong,” Im Chaem said. “Whoever filed the charges against me, please go take them and put them in jail.
“I was not the only person who struggled for the whole nation,” she added, declining to comment further.
Cases 003 and 004 have been bitterly opposed by the government—with Cambodian court staff refusing to pursue the investigations into Khmer Rouge officials.
However, civil parties Wednesday praised the issuance of charges in absentia by International Co-Investigating Judge Mark Harmon, who was acting autonomously from his Cambodian counterpart, You Bunleng.
New Zealander Rob Hamill’s brother Kerry was one of three foreign yachtsmen, along with Canadian Stuart Glass and Briton John Dewhirst, who were captured by the Khmer Rouge when their boat strayed into Cambodian waters in 1978. The trio were sent to the notorious Tuol Sleng security center, in Phnom Penh, where they were tortured and killed.
Mr. Hamill, who appeared as a civil party at the trial of Tuol Sleng director Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, said Wednesday that he “could hardly believe” that Meas Muth had been charged in Case 003.
“For me personally, I feel his role was critical to my brother’s fate. I think he would have had the power to let him go in the first instance …‘This guy’s an adventurer, he’s not threat to the nation, let him go,’” he said.
“So I put that on him, I rest that burden right in his lap.”
Mr. Hamill, who interviewed Meas Muth for a documentary film released in 2011 about his brother’s death, “Brother Number One,” said that when pressed on the deaths of millions of people during Democratic Kampuchea, the former navy captain clammed up.
“I can only say that he was in denial and was protecting himself as much as possible,” Mr. Hamill said. “He was saying the Pol Pot policies were fantastic and if Pol Pot was in power, this country would be 20 times better than it is now.”
Oum Mak, 46, a civil party in Case 004 from Banteay Meanchey province, said he was pleased that charges had been issued against Im Chaem, who oversaw his worksite, and called for her to receive a serious penalty.
“I support that the court has charged her because she ordered villagers [to become] overworked without anything to eat and the sick received no medical treatment,” Mr. Mak said.
“I was aged 7, I was so hungry…militia kicked my back and hit me with a tree branch. I was blinded in my left eye,” he added. “I want [the court] to punish her.”
However, according to Heather Ryan, a court monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, the issuance of charges was simply an important step in the progress of the cases, which have been under investigation since 2009.
Ms. Ryan said that although Judge Harmon does not need the cooperation of Judge Bunleng to issue an indictment, the Cambodian judge could submit a formal objection to the pretrial chamber, a process that could take several months to be resolved.
The pretrial chamber, made up of three national and two international judges, must also review any indictment of the accused. Four of the five judges would need to oppose the case to prevent it going to trial.
“If the accused are ultimately indicted—they will either have to come to the court voluntarily or be brought via an arrest warrant if a trial is to proceed,” Ms. Ryan said in an email.
“It is concerning that the judicial police apparently declined to cooperate in bringing the suspects to the court for charging and that the judge had to resort to in absentia charging. This is highly unusual. Refusal of the judicial police to cooperate may indicate a violation of the ECCC Agreement which provides for such cooperation,” she said.
“If that is the case, the UN and the court have an obligation to address this with the public and with the government.”