Global Policy Forum

Pol Pot's Deputy Held on Genocide Charge


By Jonathan Watts

September 19, 2007

Cambodian police have arrested the most senior living member of the Khmer Rouge regime, who will now face a UN-backed genocide trial for his alleged role in almost two million deaths in the 1970s. Nuon Chea, better known as Brother No 2, was seized from his house near the Thai border and charged with crimes against humanity. The second-in-command to the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, his arrest is the boldest move yet made by the UN-Cambodian tribunal, which was set up last year to investigate one of the bloodiest periods of rule in modern world history.

Justice has been a long time coming, but once it arrived it moved swiftly. The former president of the national assembly had been protected by political allies since the end of the 1975-1979 government. Today, however, family members and hundreds of onlookers watched in silence as the 82-year-old was taken away soon after dawn from his remote home in the jungle area of Pailin. His son Nuon Say told the Associated Press that his mother fainted after seeing her husband escorted to a car by a dozen police and court officials. The elderly man rolled down the window and took a last look at his son, but said nothing as he was driven away. "He was shaking. His legs looked like they would collapse," a neighbour, Sok Sothera, told Agence France-Presse.

Nuon Chea was transported by helicopter to the military airport in Phnom Penh and then taken immediately in a convoy for a first hearing by the tribunal, which is officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. "An initial appearance will be held today during which he will be informed of the charges which have been brought against him," the tribunal said in a statement.

Nuon Chea played a pivotal role in the rise of Pol Pot, who came to dominate the underground communist movement in the 1950s and 60s. After the group took power he was seen as one of the architects of its radical ideology. The Khmer Rouge declared "year zero", abolishing religion, schools and currency, sending millions to collective farms and persecuting and murdering intellectuals and other possible opponents. Up to two million people are believed to have died in that four-year period, depicted in the film The Killing Fields.

The UN-backed tribunal said it has recommended five senior Khmer Rouge figures for trial. No names have been released, but Nuon Chea and his family knew that an arrest was imminent. However, in recent interviews he insisted he had been mainly in charge of legislative matters and often did not know what policies were being implemented by Pol Pot . "I was not involved in the killing of people," he told AFP in July. "I don't know who was responsible."

Nuon Say was not optimistic about the likelihood that his father would ever be free again. "We are not happy because he struggled for the nation, but at the end of his life he will be found guilty." Many had thought that the Khmer leaders would succumb to old age before they could be tried. Pol Pot died a free man in 1998 and his military chief, Ta Mok, died in 2006 in government custody. Others were thought to be protected by the current president Hun Sen - a former Khmer Rouge member.

But after seven years of tense negotiation with the UN, the tribunal was established last year under two judges - Cambodia's You Bun Leng and his UN-appointed counterpart, Marcel Lemonde. Nuon Chea is the second person to be charged with crimes against humanity. Last month Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was brought before the tribunal for his role as head of the notorious Khmer Rouge S-21 prison.

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