Photo: Nuon Chea, seated Victor Koppe and members of his defence team
The Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia started up again recently after the defence lifted their boycott of the proceedings. Two former Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, are accused of the mass murder of ethnic Vietnamese and Muslims in the 1970s. Their defence lawyers had boycotted the trial since October last year in order to work on their appeal for a previous sentencing.
Chea and Samphan were earlier convicted on other charges after a two-year trial at the UN-backed court in Cambodia. The current trial is another in the case against the two for crimes against humanity. The charges have been split into smaller trials in an attempt to speed up the judicial process.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan both suffer from poor health and the proceedings in January have moved a lot more slowly than hoped due to cancelled hearings. On 21 January the proceedings picked up where they had left off with gripping testimonies from witnesses and victims. Kaj Jalving attended the hearing and wrote down his impressions of the day.
The boy who saw everything
Outside were busloads full of chatty schoolchildren lining up to enter the courtroom, inside was a middle aged man waiting to finally give the testimony of his lifetime. Meas Sokha was a tiny man. He would refuse to grow, his mother had told him several times when he had the age of a schoolchild himself. At that time he lived in a prisoner’s camp, where his mother worked in the kitchen. Sokha would usually tend to a herd of cattle outside the camp. His life was relatively free and he got more food than most prisoners.
Schoolchildren lining up to enter the courtroom Photo: Kaj Jalving
His father had been “smashed” for opposing a village chief. Smashing was the term casually used by the Khmer Rouge for execution. His innocent mother and elder sister were immediately thrown into Kraing Ta Chan security centre in Takeo, Cambodia, south of the capitol Phnom Penh. That was the place where he was to be held for three years from 1976.
Because he could walk around freely, he saw more than most inmates. At a nearby shelter he saw guards use axes, chains and pliers to interrogate and torture prisoners. During interrogations the guards would play patriotic music. Prisoners could only hear the music, not the screaming.
Sokha said the guards feasted on victims’ gall bladders, which were dried in the sun and then combined with wine, a drink the cadres thought would give them courage during further killings. He saw a baby being smashed against a tree.
He witnessed as a group of about 100 people were executed. They were massacred simply because the prison had reached full capacity. First, they were left behind outside, without any food. Then the guards came to execute them, in a shallow pit. Most of them had their throats slit with a sword. As soon as he saw it happening he ran away. He went to look after his water buffalo.
Sokha pretended he was dumb. In the eyes of the guards he was a harmless child. He tended to cattle, he dug some small canals, he buried victim’s corpses. He did not speak with anyone about the atrocities he saw, not even with his mother. His silence saved his life.
Now, almost forty years later, the tiny man sat there, testifying against two of the once most powerful men of his country. All he had to do was speak the truth, finally, after so many years. “He’s lying”, claimed the defendant’s lawyer. “He is making it up. He didn’t see anything”. But even after a painful cross-examination there was no grain of doubt. Meas Sokha’s testimonial was true.
The views and opinions expressed in these piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Justice Hub.
Header photo: ECCC/Flickr