Twenty years ago I saw some black and white pictures in Times of people that are murdered by the Red Khmer in Cambodia. One woman looked at me right in the eyes, the expression in her face struck me and for the first time I made a portrait of somebody with material I had lying around. After finishing the portrait I looked at her and called her Potential Refugee as she didn’t have the chance to flee from the cruelty that surrounded her in search for a safer place; and even if she could have done this you can wonder if she would have found a place that would welcome her with open arms and dry her tears and soften her sorrow.
— Corina Karstenberg (1967)
On the recent verdict of the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal
Last week, there was finally some small measure of justice for the 2 million people killed by the Khmer Rouge and for the entire nation of Cambodia. For the first time, 2 top leaders of that vicious regime were held accountable for their crimes.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were found guilty by a UN-backed tribunal of crimes against humanity. The verdict comes 35 years after the Khmer Rouge were chased out of power by the Vietnamese army in 1979. The sentence of life imprisonment for two men in their 80s was “a little too late for many” according to one survivor. However, survivors also felt the trial was important to ensure that these crimes were not forgotten and to hopefully prevent such atrocities from happening again.
Khieu Samphan was president of Cambodia from 1976 to 1979 and one of the most powerful members of the Khmer Rouge. He was the face of the Khmer Rouge and represented the regime abroad. He denies having direct responsibility for the mass killings, though he helped shape and support the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge.
Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two”, was Pol Pot’s deputy and second in command. He was instrumental in developing the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and the policies that led to so much death and misery. Their goal was to create an agrarian utopia by levelling the society through the “Year Zero” program, which involved dismantling all existing culture and tradions, murdering teachers, artists and intellectuals and abolishing schools and religion.
The entire population of the nation’s capital Phnom Penh (and all other cities) was marched out of the city and into the neighboring countryside to agricultural forced labor camps called ‘cooperatives’. There people were subjected to unimaginably horrible conditions, worked day and night growing rice and given little or no food. Private property was abolished and anyone caught looking for food for themselves was severely punished and often executed. The slightest hint of resistance could result in execution or being sent off to a torture facility, such as the infamous Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. Thousands of people starved to death.
International Co-Prosecutor Andrew Cayley:
“If the accused wanted an orange from Pursat, it would be picked and delivered to them. But if a parent sought to pick some fruit or catch a fish for a starving child, they would be arrested, reported to Angkar [the regime] and sent for re-education. Death might come swiftly, but not swiftly enough to spare the torture.”
Two other top officials, leng Sary, the former foreign minister, and his wife leng Thirith, former social affairs minister, were meant to be tried as well, but leng Sary died in March 2013 and leng Thirith was deemed unfit to stand trial.
Amnesty International praised the tribunal for reaching a verdict despite many difficulties during the 3 years of proceedings. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan will join Duch, the chief of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and the only other senior Khmer Rouge member to have been convicted for his crimes.