The first of four suspects in government-opposed cases at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was freed from potential prosecution on Wednesday, with investigating judges concluding that Im Chaem, a district secretary for the regime, was neither a senior leader nor one of those most responsible for crimes committed between 1975 and 1979.
Cambodian Investigating Judge You Bunleng and his international counterpart, Michael Bohlander, decided that Im Chaem’s alleged crimes—including overseeing mass killings of suspected traitors—were not deemed serious enough to be sent to trial, according to a statement released by the court on Wednesday.
“They dismissed the case, because according to their evaluation of the evidence collected during the investigation, Im Chaem is not subject to the ECCC’s [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s] personal jurisdiction, which means she was neither a senior leader nor otherwise one of the most responsible officials of the Khmer Rouge regime,” the statement said.
A full explanation of the decision to throw out the case would be released “in due course,” it said.
Im Chaem’s lawyers, Bit Seanglim and Wayne Jordash, said it was “crystal clear” that she was not among those “most responsible” and took aim at International Co-Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian for moving her case forward.
“As was crystal clear from any reasoned view of the evidence and the law, this was not a case that the International Co-Prosecutor ought to have pursued and it has cost our client dearly,” they said.
“There are of course no winners in cases such as these. The International Co-Prosecutor ought to have pursued justice for the victims by adopting a more careful and focused approach on relevant suspects.”
Mr. Koumjian declined to comment until the reasons for the decision were made public.
A native of Takeo province’s Tram Kak district, which was later labeled the regime’s “model district,” Im Chaem joined the communist insurgency during the early 1970s.
By 1976, she had ascended the ranks to become a “representative of Southwest Zone peasants” in the Khmer Rouge-appointed People’s Assembly, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
A trusted and well-connected member of the regime with particularly close ties to infamous Southwest Zone commander Ta Mok, she was sent to the Northwest Zone in 1977 to become secretary of Preah Netr Preah district in Banteay Meanchey province as internal purges began to intensify.
“Im Chaem allegedly presided over a wave of killings of people suspected of harboring anti-regime sentiments as Khmer Rouge rule disintegrated in late 1978-early 1979 in the face of Vietnamese military advances,” the HRW report says.
Im Chaem’s name came up on numerous occasions in the second trial of the regime’s second-in-command Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan, who will find out if they have been found guilty of crimes including genocide later this year.
Both are serving life sentences after being found guilty of crimes against humanity in their initial trial, which focused on mass evacuations of urban areas.
In 2015, Sen Sophorn, testifying as a civil party in the trial, said that Im Chaem, whom he called Yeay Chaem, proved to be even more brutal than her predecessors once she began overseeing the Trapeang Thma Dam worksite.
“After a period of time, Yeay Chaem was even crueler than others. What I know is that after Yeay Chaem came to replace the previous cadre, many people died,” he told the court.
“Yeay Chaem was the one who came to arrest Ta Val and [have] my parents…killed,” he said, in reference to the much-feared commander who had previously overseen the dam.
The case of Im Chaem was perceived by some as a litmus test for cases 003 and 004, which are widely expected to be blocked before trial due to opposition from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge military commander himself.
He has warned that seeking prosecutions outside the regime’s highest echelons could plunge the country back into civil war, sending Khmer Rouge loyalists back into the forest to take up arms.
Heather Ryan, a court monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which monitors the tribunal, said she was not surprised by the decision to throw out the case.
“The decision to dismiss the charges against Im Chaem because she is not a senior leader or ‘a person most responsible’ as required to trigger the jurisdiction of the ECCC is not surprising given hints that the international and Cambodian investigating judges have released regarding the case,” she said in an email.
“What is surprising is that the international judge agreed to dismiss the case in spite of the publicly disclosed view of the international prosecutor that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that Im Chaem was a person ‘most responsible’ for serious crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” she added.
Despite not yet being able to make a full evaluation of the decision, Ms. Ryan said that dismissing the case “to focus only on the strongest cases makes practical sense.”
Meas Muth, a former Khmer Rouge navy commander, is the highest-profile of the remaining defendants, which also include Ao An, a deputy zone secretary, and Yim Tith, an acting zone secretary under the regime.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, who has visited Im Chaem on numerous occasions over the years, said the court’s “vague” decisions can leave survivors confused, but that he nonetheless respected them.
“Personally, as long as the judges followed the rules and the evidence, we must accept the decision, which can be difficult sometimes to swallow,” he said.