Vann Nath’s Health Care a Bitter Pill for Some

Artist’s plight highlights chasm between Khmer Rouge victim, perpetrators

Eyes have been on the health problems of two very different public figures from the Khmer Rouge period this week—one victim and one perpetrator.

The family of Vann Nath, who improbably survived Tuol Sleng prison due to his skills as an artist, has struggled to pay growing medical costs after he lapsed into a coma last week.

At the same time, Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge second-in-command and chief ideologue of the Pol Pot regime, was receiving top-notch free medical care as he protested in court that he was too sick to stand trial.

Prisoners at the Khmer Rouge tribunal have a right to medical care according to international hu­man rights standards, but the painful irony of the contrasting situations was particularly apparent on Wednesday.

Mr Nath lay in critical condition that day, his tearful family and friends gathered at his bedside in a Phnom Penh hospital. His family was forced to seek donations to pay for his medical bills, which amount to hundreds of dollars a day.

Across town at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Nuon Chea’s lawyers disputed a prominent New Zealand-based geriatrician who pronounced him mentally and physically fit to take part in his coming trial for crimes against humanity.

Nuon Chea, feeling unwell, left the courtroom for a holding cell as his lawyers asked repeatedly for him to be excused to rest in detention facilities. A doctor, called by judges to examine Nuon Chea, conducted two separate examinations in the span of an hour, complete with blood pressure and blood-oxygen level readings. They were normal, but Nuon Chea continued to complain that his back hurt and he “felt like vomiting,” which was his argument for not having to stand trial for the horrendous crimes he is accused of committing.

Since their arrests in 2007, Nuon Chea and his three co-de­fendants have all had numerous medical exams by top Cambodian practitioners at Calmette Hospital, as well as a number of foreign medical experts from countries such as France and New Zealand, of whom geriatric specialist Dr John Campbell is just the latest.

The government pays for the medical care of the former Khmer Rouge leaders as well as running their detention facility under an agreement with the UN, said the tribunal’s public af­fairs officer Huy Vannak.

An ambulance, doctor and nurse are on hand at the detention center 24 hours a day, he said, noting that all accused persons had their health and security taken care of. “This is their right to life,” he said.

The detention center also has an exercise area, food recommended by a doctor, fans and a living room with a TV, he added.

Over the years, former Khmer Rouge Foreign Affairs Ministry Ieng Sary has been repeatedly sent for treatment and admitted to Cal­mette Hospital in Phnom Penh.

Ieng Sary’s lawyers have in the past claimed that detention at the tribunal harms his health.

Mr Nath’s son-in-law, Lon Na­ra, said his family had no time to think about the health care provisions on hand for the former Khmer Rouge leaders.

“We only focus on helping him [our father] as much as we possibly can by ourselves,” he said. “Moreover, my father’s friends always come to support him and give some money toward the medical costs.”

Friends working at the Khmer Rouge tribunal were among those who came to visit him in hospital and gave donations out of their own pockets.

Mr Nara believed his father-in-law was satisfied with the justice brought by the court. “Even now, I believe my father is happy with what the court has done so far.”

Last year, the court handed down a 35-year prison sentence to Mr Nath’s one-time tormenter Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who oversaw the torture and execution of at least 14,000 people in Tuol Sleng prison where Mr Nath was a prisoner.

Although Mr Nath did not participate in the Duch trial as a civil party, he played a key role by giving evidence in court of his experiences at Tuol Sleng prison, said the tribunal’s Mr Vannak. “We wish for him to get better soon.”

During the trial, victims of Duch asked for a number of reparations for their suffering, including free access to medical care and psychological counseling. Judges denied the requests because Duch had no money to pay for them.

Silke Studzinsky, a lawyer who represents dozens of victims in the Duch case, said she was disappointed by this result, noting that all Cambodians should have access to the same standard of care that Duch and his co-detainees receive at the war crimes tribunal.

“It should not be the cause to lower [the detainees’] situation, but the request should be that all Cambodians should have access to wonderful conditions,” Ms Studzinsky said.

Duch will serve about 18 more years in jail and currently resides with the second case’s four defendants in a special detention center at the tribunal.

Kuy Bunsorn, general director of the Interior Ministry’s general department of prisons, said that at least two doctors from Calmette Hospital regularly checked on the detained former Khmer Rouge leaders.

“The ECCC is responsible for medical costs and preparations to arrange doctors,” he said.

Outside the prison, the task of finding and paying for vital medical care to keep Mr Nath alive will fall to his family, friends and the kindness of strangers.

“It deeply cuts in our hearts for the perpetrators to live longer than our parents and relatives who survived the Khmer Rouge,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambo­dia. “It’s so ironic. It deeply cuts.”

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