Genocide researchers believe they have organized enough potential evidence to support strong prosecutions of captured rebel leader Ta Mok and jailed prison warden Duch, as well as bring indictments against other key Khmer Rouge leaders.
Eyewitness testimony, documents, and physical evidence now also appear sufficient to support indictments against former Democratic Kampuchea leaders Nuon Chea, Ke Pauk, and Ieng Sary—should prosecutors choose to expand the scope of a tribunal to try former leaders of the movement for crimes against humanity, they say.
Details of a future tribunal have yet to be finalized but UN experts are due here next week to meet with government officials. Key foreign genocide scholars have been in town in recent weeks working with a team of Cambodian experts, sifting through decades-old documents and other potential evidence that could be used to build the cases. The documents themselves would not officially be considered evidence until a judge agrees to admit them into the trial.
Much of the potential evidence is contained in telegrams which imply the former leaders were apprised of efforts to “smash,” “sweep cleanly away,” or deliver the “highest level of punitive sanction”—all Khmer Rouge euphemisms for killing.
After analyzing documents on file at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Stephen Heder, a genocide researcher and historian, concluded the documents at the very least demonstrate “guilty knowledge” of internal purges on the part of former leaders, and executions of former government officials labeled “enemy agents.”
Many of the documents on their own do not prove that the leaders themselves actually ordered individual purges or tortures, he noted.
But in many cases, the documents appear to strongly imply their culpability in policies that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of former officials who served in the Lon Nol government, innocent Cambodians and Khmer Rouge cadres labeled as spies by the maniacally paranoid Khmer Rouge apparatus.
For instance, a Sept 6, 1977, telegram from the then secretary of the North Zone to “committee 870,” a code name to the Central Committee, refers to “ongoing” measures to “continue sweeping away…enemies cleanly away one after the other.” The enemies the secretary refers to are defined as those guilty of “traitorous, counter-revolutionary measures.”
“On the one hand, we have discovered one after the other enemies are former civil servants, police and soldiers. On the other hand, compared to before, we now have a gradual decrease in terms of undercover enemies burrowing from within: a very few of their henchmen remain,” the secretary wrote.
Evidence is strongest against three former leaders: Ta Mok, Duch and Nuon Chea, scholars say. In the cases of Nuon Chea, the shadowy figure once known as “brother number 2,” and Ta Mok, the material is “overwhelming,” said Youk Chhang, head of the documentation center.
Nuon Chea’s handwriting can be found on documents from Tuol Sleng prison, where as many as 20,000 prisoners were tortured and executed. In addition, more Tuol Sleng confessions appear to have been addressed to him than any other living member of the former Central Committee.
Craig Etcheson, a genocide researcher for the International Monitor Institute, said Ta Mok, Duch and Nuon Chea “are all over the paperwork flow” that documented murders and torture.
“Ta Mok’s fingerprints are everywhere in the killings,” Etcheson said. At least three confessions elicited at Tuol Sleng can be read as “implicating Ta Mok in the purge process.”
Some documents which were copied to Ieng Sary—Democratic Kampuchea’s deputy prime minister for foreign affairs—were not sent to Nuon Chea, according to a draft research paper written by Heder on the potential evidence.
An April 8, 1978, telegram apparently from deputy prime minister for defense Son Sen, reported that a Khmer Rouge official had been wounded when his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine.
Efforts were being made, the telegram reported, to “find internal enemies in order to take timely measures” against them.
Experts and diplomats have long agreed that the paper trail left behind by leaders of the bloody 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot regime will likely play a key role in prosecution of those responsible for policies resulting in the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians.
While the portfolio of evidence against Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, Duch, Ieng Sary, and Ke Pauk has expanded, evidence on high profile former diplomat Khieu Samphan appears somewhat more scant, researchers say.
Evidence is also hard to find for Ieng Thirith, who is Ieng Sary’s wife and also the sister of Khieu Ponnary, Pol Pot’s first wife.
Nuon Chea and fellow Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan effectively surrendered to the government in December.
They are holed up in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, which Ieng Sary led to the government side in 1996.
Duch, also known as Kaing Khev Iev, the former chief of Tuol Sleng prison who converted to Christianity, has already confessed his guilt in the torture and deaths of the as many as 20,000 prisoners killed there. He has also implicated the entire Khmer Rouge Central Committee with the exception of Ieng Sary. In interviews prior to his incarceration made the most damning accusations about Nuon Chea.
Ke Pauk, the only person attached to the former Democratic Kampuchea central committee to officially be on the government payroll, defected from Anlong Veng last spring. At the time, he said he would face a tribunal if ordered by the government. He’s an RCAF general.
Youk Chhang said the evidence consists of documents, physical evidence from mass grave sites, witnesses and “former perpetrators” acting under orders, he said.
Heder cautioned that the documents must be supplemented with investigations that could be lengthy.
“The documents are certainly incriminating in the absence of defense,” he said. “But whether they would stand up on their own and be enough once a defense lawyer attacks them is an open question.”
Benson Samay, the lawyer representing Ta Mok, predicted prosecutors will have a difficult time proving his client is guilty of crimes against humanity. “They can say Ta Mok killed X. But how did he kill? When did he kill? Why did he kill? There’s no evidence. People can say I killed this one because Ta Mok gave me an order. How do you prove that?”