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CAMBODIA: Death Saves Khmer Rouge ‘Butcher’ From Justice

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 21 2006 (IPS) - The death of Ta Mok, ‘The Butcher’, from natural causes, was a disappointment to many Cambodians who survived the unspeakable atrocities that he and other leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge perpetrated on a hapless population, but never paid for.

There is now a growing fear that other ageing members of that brutal Maoist regime may never face justice at the specially created war crimes tribunal; dying peacefully and unrepentant, ahead of their day in court.

Ta Mok died Thursday of poor health and respiratory complications. The 80-year-old’s end became imminent after he was hospitalised last month for a combination of ailments, including high blood pressure and stomach pain, and then his slipping into a coma.

”I really wanted to see him go before the court and explain why they killed so many people,” Khieu Kola, a senior Cambodian journalist who survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror from 1975-79, said in a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. ”It is disappointing that he died before the trial. We fear this may happen to the others.”

Khieu was 14 years old when Khmer Rouge troops, dressed in their trademark black uniforms, marched into the Cambodian capital in April 1975. He was forced to join the ranks of nearly two million people in Phnom Penh who were driven out of the city to rural areas to be put through years of hard labour, which included building roads in slave-like conditions.

”I witnessed many deaths there,” said Khieu, who was separated from his family. His younger brother was killed by the Khmer Rouge ”because he stole a piece of potato to eat. He had been starving.”

The mind-numbing crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge for over five years resulted in close to 1.7 million deaths, nearly a quarter of the country’s population at the time. Most Cambodian victims were either executed or died due to forced labour or from starvation.

Pol Pot, the leader of this dictatorship who died in a rural part of the country in 1998, wanted to turn this South-east Asian nation into an agrarian paradise. His long list of enemies who were to be killed included intellectuals and people from cities, who were labelled ”parasites.” The one-legged Ta Mok, who became the army chief in 1977, played a pivotal role in the Khmer Rouge policy of purging cities of their inhabitants, like Khieu and his family.

The death of Ta Mok – reportedly the first surviving Khmer Rouge commander to go before the war crimes tribunal – will now shift attention to other ageing leaders, most of them in their 70s and 80s. Heading that list is Kaing Khek Eav, also known as ‘Duch,’ who headed the Toul Sleng interrogation centre in Phnom Penh, where 14,000 people accused of being traitors died and only 12 inmates survived.

A book about Khmer Rouge atrocities, ‘Seven Candidates for Prosecution’, names other surviving leaders such as Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Sou Met and Meah Met of being linked to policies that led to mass executions and torture. Nuon Chea, who was Pol Pot’s deputy, has been enjoying a life of freedom since receiving an amnesty from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 1998.

Others on that list enjoying similar liberties are Khieu Samphan, former head of state during the Khmer Rouge years, and Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister. Hun Sen himself was a junior member of the brutal regime before defecting to the Vietnamese troops that drove Pol Pot from power in 1979.

It has taken 27 years for the Cambodian victims to finally believe that justice was possible – after the much delayed war crimes tribunal came to life this month to look into the cases of crimes against humanity. The hurdles that were placed in the way of this trial, now backed by the U.N., were shaped by years of Cold War politics, Cambodia’s years of civil war and disagreements about the composition of the tribunal between the Hun Sen government and the world body.

The tribunal, known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, began work on Jul. 3, when 13 international jurists and 17 Cambodian judges were sworn in at a special ceremony at the royal palace in Phnom Penh. On Jul. 10, the co-prosecutors began their investigations to build cases against the accused, among whom was Ta Mok.

Shortly afterwards, the independent Phnom Penh-based Documentation Centre of Cambodia handed over boxes full of evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities it has gathered to help the tribunal in its investigations. It included gruesome details from some 20,000 mass graves, 189 prisons and 30,000 victim interviews.

Uncertainties about this tribunal include whether its court sessions will reveal the involvement of governments such as the United States, China and Thailand during a bloody phase of Cambodian history spanning over two decades.

As part of its war with Vietnam in the late 1960s, Washington launched a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia. And after Pol Pot was driven out of power, his group was aided by the U.S., Chinese and Thai governments, then at odds with the victorious Vietnamese army.

”Ta Mok’s death serves a message to us. We need to push the tribunal to accelerate its work,” Thun Saray, president of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (or ADHOC, as it is known in Cambodia), told IPS. ”We have lost an important witness and a main accused.”

”This tribunal is the only one that will provide justice and peace for the people,” he added. ”It is better to try some leaders than have nothing at all.”

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