Like so many surviving yet aging leaders of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime who have lived decades without ever seeing a day in court, the hardened cadre once known as the “Butcher” reportedly has fallen ill.
Accounts differed Monday on what exactly is wrong with the man called “Ta Mok,” or Grandfather Mok, but his lawyer said the situation could be as severe as heart attacks.
“He fell down two times on Thursday,” attorney Benson Samay said Monday. “He told me, ‘I am very tired now, and my head is all turned around.’”
An amputee who lost a leg to a land mine, the commander at one time was thought to be the most ruthless of all Khmer Rouge leaders. Incarcerated since March 1999 in a military compound where he is allowed no visitors, Ta Mok, 75, awaits a trial the government has promised will get under way in the coming months.
But his attorney suggested he might not be fit for a trial, whenever it is held. “I am not sure he will be able to last until the proceedings,” Samay said.
The news not only raises concerns over the conditions of other likely suspects in the trial—the majority of them are at or more than 70 years old, and several of them also are ill—but also about the government’s commitment to try them before their deaths.
“Let’s face it, if we wait a little while longer, we will miss the opportunity to try these men,” said Kao Kim Hourn, a political analyst and the executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
In 1998, the movement’s notorious leader, Pol Pot, died of a heart attack. “Brother No 2” Nuon Chea lives in a barricaded compound near the Thai border, where guards recently said he never leaves because he is too ill. “Brother No 3” Ieng Sary regularly travels to Bangkok for medical treatment. Another key figure who could be a suspect, Ke Pauk, recently suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident and now spends all his days in his small Siem Reap home.
Kao Kim Hourn said “urgency” is mounting to hold the trial with each passing month. “Most importantly, we need to make sure they are fit to stand trial,” he said.
However, government officials, who since 1997 have sparred with the UN on how to conduct a trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, seemed unconcerned about the current conditions of Ta Mok and the others.
“An old man like this, he has enough strong life left in him,” said Om Yentieng, a top adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Yet he did express concern that a trial can not be delayed too much longer. “If we wait, Ta Mok will pass this world,” he said.
The government in recent months reached an agreement with the UN on how to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. The plan now awaits approval by the National Assembly, but officials have made no movement on the law since then. The Assembly’s legislation commission is set to begin the process on Thursday, but many doubt it will be complete before Hun Sen travels to the UN early next month.
Om Yentieng said even if the process takes a little time, suspects likely will be not immune from trial if they are ill.
All the other probable suspects defected to the government in recent years and live quietly in the countryside. Only one other, alleged torture center director Duch, is imprisoned with Ta Mok.
Authorities at the military compound on Monday tried to downplay Ta Mok’s health problems.
Deputy Chief Clerk of the Military Court Nou Samedy said by telephone that court officials spoke with Ta Mok in passing Monday morning, and the weathered soldier said he was doing fine.
Ta Mok’s attorney said he was being attended by physicians from the government-run Preah Ket Melea hospital, but hospital director Kao Try said he had not yet received any report on the matter.
Until his arrest last year, Ta Mok was the last holdout in the regime’s decades-long existence. During its ruling years from 1975-1979, when more than 1 million Cambodians died of starvation, illness, overwork and execution, he led the country’s Southwest Zone, arguably one of the most vicious regions.
Since incarceration, he has suffered a few minor health problems. But during a recent interview with Khem Them, who for years served as Ta Mok’s right-hand man, he said his old commander remains feisty.
“He (Ta Mok) knows they are delaying this trial,” said Khem Them, who said he has regular consultations with Ta Mok’s lawyer. “But he is waiting for it. He is waiting.”
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Thet Sambath)
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