sa’ang district, Kandal province — Under scrutiny by UN prosecutors since at least 2007, former Khmer Rouge Commerce Minister Van Rith died quietly here in November.
The cause was a weak heart, said his widow Huot Yan, 72. Preparations were underway at his Khpap commune home this week for private Buddhist ceremonies to be held on Sunday marking the 100 days since his death on Nov 10, she said.
Van Rith, brother-in-law of the late Khmer Rouge Defense Minister Son Sen, was 73.
Sources familiar with preliminary investigations led by UN Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said this week that UN prosecutors had hoped to include Van Rith among the handful of suspects identified for prosecution in July 2007, and that before his death he had been among the six unnamed individuals Cambodian Co-Prosecutor Chea Leang is opposed to prosecuting.
His demise adds one more senior Khmer Rouge leader to the long list of those, such as Pol Pot, his wife Khieu Ponnary, former military chief Ta Mok and former northern zone secretary Ke Pauk, whose deaths have forever put them beyond accountability.
Petit declined to comment on Thursday while Chea Leang said she was unaware both that Van Rith had died and that he had been identified as a suspect by the UN side.
However, Chea Leang took exception to charges that external political influence had caused her to oppose further prosecutions.
“What about the international community and civil society, who are asking the national prosecutor to follow them? If I follow them, is this called independence or not?” she said. “They put pressure on me and then say I’m not independent?”
Khpap commune chief Sok Bol said Thursday that on at least three occasions since the tribunal’s creation, unnamed Cambodian individuals had come to Khpap Loeu village asking about Van Rith, who refused to meet them. Two Cambodians claiming to be university students asked in January to see a copy of his death certificate to be certain he had in fact died, she said.
In an interview on Thursday at her small villa, Huot Yan said that following her husband’s death people in her village said they suspected that he had in fact run away, a suggestion she resented.
“He died and they said he ran away? There’s no kindness in their hearts,” she said.
Huot Yan said she was unaware that her husband had been a suspect but that he had almost never agreed to meet any of the people who came to visit since he returned from Battambang province to live in his native Kandal province in 1996.
Her husband had worked honorably in the Democratic Kampuchea government and did not have the power to cause death and suffering, she said, adding that as minister for commerce, he had been exclusively involved in foreign trade.
“If people were taken away and thrown in prison, it was not his decision. It was from the upper levels. It has to be from the upper levels,” she said. “It’s not right to put the blame on him.”
It was unclear on Friday what beliefs UN prosecutors had formed concerning Van Rith’s supposed criminal responsibilities.
In 1977, Van Rith replaced his former schoolmate, commerce minister Koy Thuon, who was killed at Tuol Sleng as part of purge of high-ranking government officials. According to historian Ben Kiernan, Koy Thuon was forced to confess to membership in a network plotting against the government. Of the 1,566 arrested and sent to Tuol Sleng in March and April 1977, 240 people were from the commerce ministry, according to Kiernan.
Judicial investigators say a bare minimum of 12,380 men, women and children were eliminated by the Khmer Rouge police special branch known as S-21, headquartered at Tuol Sleng.
According to a lengthy “confession” extracted at Tuol Sleng and kept by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Svay Lonh, a commerce ministry official believed to have been denounced by Van Rith, confessed to membership in a conspiracy to derail a train carrying rice from the port of Preah Sihanouk province, then called Kompong Som, to Phnom Penh.
“To block the transport, we must set up a plan to destroy the railway,” Svay Lonh told his interrogator in a June, 1977 confession. “We will pull out ten pieces of rail and throw them in the jungle.”
In a 2003 interview with DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang, Van Rith did not appear to address the question of his own responsibility.
“He declared he would not appear on any national or international stage, including any trial, wanting only to live in peace,” according to a summary of the interview.
Huot Yan said she and her husband had joined the Khmer Rouge out of devotion to their ideals. In 1968, they were both arrested and tortured for antigovernment activities.
“The spies beat us and then poured water into our noses and then stepped on our stomachs and the water would come out,” she said. “We became unconscious and then they put their fingers in our noses and said, ‘Oh, you’re not dead yet? When you die, we’ll throw you out the window.’ And then they used medicine to wake us up.”
“I do not regret joining. I am regretful that our movement is dissolved, that now it is zero,” she said.
In meetings with other government officials, Van Rith had tried to speak about hunger, even suggesting that different areas trade fish and rice to survive, but had only aroused the dangerous suspicions of others in the government, said Huot Yan.
“When he was at a meeting about the economy, my husband said ‘Oh, my mom is skinny. Her hand is like bone. She has no teeth and cannot eat,'” said Huot Yan. “They started to have a grudge against him. It was difficult to survive until now.”
“I went in not to rob and kill people, not at all. I tried for the people and the nation not to be slaves under pressure. That was my idea: justice and cleanness,” she continued. “I do not feel regretful about joining the revolution, but I regret that the revolution is dissolved and that it was not like we wished it would be.”