As the Khmer Rouge tribunal began substantive hearings yesterday in its case against three senior Pol Pot regime leaders, prosecutors told the court that the accused had turned their nation into “an ocean of blood.”
In an opening statement that lasted nearly the entire day, Cambodian Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang described the sheer horror of life under the Khmer Rouge regime—which she called “a system of brutality that defies belief”—in vivid and occasionally stomach-turning detail.
As she reeled off a litany of atrocities, co-accused Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and head of state Khieu Samphan listened impassively. Many victims sitting in the court’s public gallery openly wept.
One of them, 55-year-old Var Liman, ran out of the room in tears as Ms Leang began to describe the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975.
“I couldn’t stop my tears, and I felt as if I was seeing the image of my brothers, my two brothers, who were tied with ropes and carried to be executed separately in the forest,” she said afterwards, sobbing in the court’s bathroom.
Ms Leang described countless scenes of cannibalism, disembowelment, bloody beatings and torture. At the Sre Ambel salt fields, laborers were forced to work until their legs were eaten away by salt water. At the Trapeang Thmar dam, menstruating women could not wash the blood off their bodies and were trailed by thick clouds of flies. Those who fell ill were fed rabbit pellets or injected with coconut juice.
At one security center, guards used pincers to pull off prisoners’ noses and earlobes, then poured acid on their victims, dragged them outside naked, and cut out their livers to fry and eat. At another, prisoners were forced to defecate into helmets that doubled as their food bowls. Two small girls aged 2 and 3 had their brains bashed out against a tamarind tree by guards after their parents died.
During a discussion of genocide against Cham Muslims, prosecutors played a video clip of a Cham woman describing her suffering. She said all her sons had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“They boiled human excrement to make fertilizer, and they forced me to taste it, asking was it salty or not,” she said. “When I speak about it, it makes me better, because if I keep it inside myself, I only suffer more.”
Under the regime, the Khmer people were stripped not only of their belongings but also what Khieu Samphan had dubbed their “spiritual private property,” which the former head of state once said was more insidious than material wealth.
“It comprises everything that you think is yours, everything that you think in relation to yourself, your parents, your family and your wife,” Ms Leang explained, quoting words Khieu Samphan once told an interviewer.
This led to policies such as forced marriage and the systematic suppression of Buddhism. Monks were referred to as “disease carriers that suck the people’s blood.” Women were forced to have sex with new husbands they may have met that very afternoon, while couples who fell in love without authorization could be killed.
“They took from the people everything that makes life worth living: family, faith, education, a place to rear one’s children, a place to rest one’s head,” said Co-Prosecutor Andrew Cayley.
Chhim Phan, a former Khmer Rouge deputy commune chief attending yesterday’s hearings, said the prosecutors’ presentation was difficult to listen to. He once ordered his cadres to publicly execute a man and a woman who had fallen in love illicitly. Now, he is plagued by guilt.
“That couple was brought to smash in front of a crowd of men’s mobile unit and women’s mobile unit in order to warn others not to make love,” he recalled. “They were beaten to death with hoes and wooden sticks. I admit I killed that couple, but I was ordered to do so.”
Ms Leang and Mr Cayley said there was no doubt that the three accused were directly responsible for coordinating the policies that led to these atrocities. Each of the three is charged with genocide against Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese; crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, enslavement and torture; and war crimes, including torture, unlawful deportation, willful killing and willfully causing great suffering.
But due to the case’s complexity, judges have split it into several smaller “mini-trials,” and only forced evacuations and related crimes against humanity will be dealt with when witness testimony begins in December.
Khmer Rouge victims and their tormenters attended yesterday’s hearing side by side. Civil party Khoem Rin, 63, was evacuated from her Phnom Penh home to Kompong Speu in 1975. Her brother was executed in the jungle, and Khmer Rouge soldiers fried and ate his liver, lungs and viscera.
“When I first saw those top three Khmer Rouge leaders, I wanted to hit them with my shoes, because even Hitler, the former German leader, never killed his own people. In contrast, these former Khmer Rouge stupid leaders smashed their nation,” she said.
But Ieng Sary’s former messenger, 64-year-old Phy Phuon, who had traveled from Banteay