War Crimes Witness Tells of Gruesome Executions

Lev Lem remembers the men, women and children being tied up. He was the one who marched them to the freshly dug pits, where he believes they were bludgeoned to death with iron bars and bamboo stumps.

They went quietly to their deaths, the 58-year-old told the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal Tuesday.

The condemned (told a lie that they would be going to meet the shadowy Khmer Rouge leadership, or Angkar, which would give them food to eat) agreed to be tied up and blindfolded, Mr. Lem said.

Mr. Lem was a member of a mobile Khmer Rouge commune unit based in Kompong Chhnang province’s Kompong Tralach Leu district, as it was then known. One of his tasks was to climb trees to collect palm juice, he said. He also told the court that he had to assess the biographies of evacuees from Phnom Penh, before changing the course of his testimony and saying that he had other jobs to do instead.

Mr. Lem recounted how he had witnessed evacuees from urban areas arriving in his area, mostly from Kompong Chhnang rather than Phnom Penh, in 1975.

“About 200 families. Some were still alive, some disappeared,” he said.

The “new” or “April 17” people, as they were referred to by the Khmer Rouge because of their evacuation from urban areas on that date in 1975, were made to write detailed biographies. The content of these would determine people’s fate. In Kompong Chhnang, some people met their fate at the bottom of a pit.

The process of systematic extermination in the area began in June 1975, Mr. Lem said. Those with a background in farming or peasantry would be put to one side.

“Other people would be put into another group,” he said. “Later on, the people in that group disappeared. They were smashed.”

His involvement in the process was to deliver those intended for death to “a spot where the district military were already there—waiting,” but Mr. Lem claims he then backed away and did not actually bear witness to killings.

“I did not know how they were killed. Later on, I heard they used a club or ox cart axle to kill those people. They didn’t use bullets to shoot them because that would break their secrecy. They would use a club or bamboo stump to hit or strike them. I was told by other people—I didn’t witness it myself.”

But this was a sticking point for Victor Koppe, the defense lawyer for war crimes suspect Nuon Chea, who asked the witness if the entire event was not simply “a figment of [his] imagination?”

“I’m putting it to you that there were no executions and you were not a witness to them in the weeks after 17 April, 1975,” Mr. Koppe said.

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