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RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: Khmer Rouge Trials Bare Sexual Abuse

Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH, Sep 8 2008 (IPS) - In a move that could break the silence around sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge, a 68 year-old transgender woman has became the first person to submit a complaint about gender-related abuse to the international tribunal during the group’s brief but bloody reign.

Som Southevy’s story also highlights the contemporary situation with regard to sexual violence in Cambodia, which many observers and human rights organisations believe is getting worse.

Southevy told a press conference this week she had been accused of so-called ‘moral crimes’ and acting like a woman by the Khmer Rouge and incarcerated in several detention centres.

Weeping as she spoke, Southevy said that while she was in these prisons she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and gang raped by Khmer Rouge officials and cadres.

Although she cannot reveal all of the details, many of which are the subject of the official complaint to the tribunal, she was also forced to have her hair cut and wear men’s clothing.

“If I had not followed these orders I would have been killed,” she said. “I was forced to marry a woman and after ten days they [the Khmer Rouge] investigated whether it was a genuine marriage – that is they tested whether we had had sexual intercourse.”

Forced marriages were a common occurrence during the Khmer Rouge regime.

“I was just one of many transgender victims, a lot of them died during the regime,” said Southevy. “I am lucky to have survived and be able to tell my story.”

“It is time to dispel the widespread myth that sexual violence did not occur under the Khmer Rouge,” said Silke Studzinsky, Southevy’s lawyer.

“It is my hope that this first complaint will encourage other victims of sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge to file complaints, speak out about their stories and help search for the truth.”

Studzinsky said the acts committed against her client must be considered within the crime of rape, as they were committed without consent of the person concerned and at the coercion of another party.

Although sexual crimes are not specified in the law establishing the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Studzinsky said there was ample scope for the court to hear them as part of crimes against humanity.

Southevy is one of a number of people applying to be recognised as a civil party before the tribunal into the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, whose rule between 1975 and 1979 is estimated to have led to the deaths of nearly two million people through torture, starvation and murder.

All Cambodians are able to file a complaint with the tribunal, volunteer to be a witness and contribute information.

An individual who has suffered significant harm as a direct result of the commission of a crime falling under the tribunal’s jurisdiction can also apply to be recognised as a civil party.

Although the exact details have yet to be worked out, civil parties have full rights to participate in the trial, including having legal representation, accessing documentation and participating in the proceedings.

Much of the process is being by driven by NGOs engaged in public outreach and education activities on how the tribunal works and what rights people have in relation to it. They are also helping those interested draft complaints, which are then processed by the Victims Unit attached to the tribunal.

Tribunal officials are hopeful Southevy’s actions will encourage more people to come forward with stories of sexual abuse during the Khmer Rouge.

Victim’s Unit spokesperson, Constanze Oehlrich, said that as of early September the tribunal had received approximately 1,800 complaints and civil party applications.

To date, 28 have been accepted in regard to the case of against Kaing Guek Eav, otherwise known as Duch, head of the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre.

The tribunal announced in mid-August it had indicted Duch for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The prosecution is seeking to widen the scope of these charges, which could delay the start of the trial until November.

Duch will be the first of the five senior Khmer Rouge leaders currently in custody to stand trial.

The four others are Noun Chea or ‘Brother No 2’ as he was known in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, former Democratic Kampuchea head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the regime’s minister of social action.

Southevy’s application for civil party status could open up debate about the little researched aspect of gender-based crime under the Khmer Rouge.

“It is an area that is not yet investigated,” said Studzinsky. “There are some limited studies and interviews with victims of sexual violence, men and women.” “The problem is no one has asked the people. If you ask them then the story comes out. It is hidden history.”

“The topic of sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge has been taboo for a long time,” said Dr Muny Sothara, a psychiatrist and Project Coordinator with Trans-cultural Psychosocial Organisation, a local NGO contracted to provide psychological support to victims and witnesses taking part in the tribunal.

“I myself know there was a lot of sexual violence during this time but I have not met many of my clients who talk about it freely with me.”

“For woman in particular, the problems of talking about it are twofold: There is the trauma of the event, plus the cultural conditioning which makes something like rape so shameful.”

“Dealing with gender-based violence under the Khmer Rouge can help us deal with the subject of sexual violence in Cambodian society today,” said Studzinsky.

Human rights organisations have reported increasing cases of rape and domestic violence, with many of the perpetrators enjoying impunity in the same manner as that experienced by the Khmer Rouge.

“Increasing cases of rape can be partially attributed to the spread of drug use among youth gangs and to the inability of authorities to crack down on the perpetrators for fear of revenge,” said the 2007 report by local human rights group ADHOC.

“Other contributing factors may include lack of attention to complaints and investigations by authorities in order to arrest the perpetrators before they can escape justice or commit other crimes,” it said.

There is also an ongoing controversy about an anti-trafficking law introduced by the Cambodian government, which has resulted in a widespread crackdown on sex workers throughout much of the country.

Sex workers are being sent to rehabilitation camps in which they face rape and violence by the police as part of this crackdown, according to rights groups.

“It is shocking to me to see that after more than 30 years we are again sending sex workers to prisons, starving them and calling it rehabilitation or re-education,” said Southevy. “This sounds me so similar to what the Khmer Rouge said when they locked us up for moral crimes.”

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