(New York) – The Cambodian government should act on charges issued against criminal suspects by an international judge at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, or the United Nations should withdraw its participation from the court and international donors should end their funding, Human Rights Watch said today. 

On March 3, 2015, Judge Mark Harmon, the UN-selected co-investigating judge of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), created in 2006 to bring justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge, announced that he had charged in absentia two former local Khmer Rouge leaders, Im Chem and Meas Muth, with crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in 1975-79. The Cambodian co-investigating judge, following the policy of non-cooperation in these cases announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has refused to forward the cases to the police, while the police have reportedly refused to act on Harmon’s charges.

“The Cambodian government’s refusal to cooperate in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders before the UN-backed tribunal would be the last straw after years of obstruction, delay, and corruption,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the government fails to act quickly on the judge’s charges, then it’s time the UN end its participation and for donors to stop funding the tribunal. Further support would just make a mockery of justice for millions of victims and their families.”

The policies and practices of the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million Cambodians and others, the vast majority from extrajudicial execution, torture, starvation, and disease. For many years, geopolitics denied victims of the Khmer Rouge any possibility of justice. China and the United States opposed the Cambodian government created after Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979 and ensured that the Khmer Rouge retained Cambodia’s seat at the UN. Chinese military aid revived Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge as an anti-Vietnamese insurgency, and the US joined China in opposing accountability for Khmer Rouge crimes.

The 1991 Paris Agreements aimed to confirm a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, end armed conflict, and organize democratic elections, but did not provide for accountability for Khmer Rouge crimes. Instead, it merely called for a non-return to the “policies and practices of the past.” In June 1997, the country’s then-co-prime ministers, including Hun Sen, himself a former local Khmer Rouge commander, wrote to the UN asking for its assistance to set up a court similar to the ad hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to address “the issue of individual accountability” for Khmer Rouge crimes.

However, after overthrowing his co-prime minister in a coup the next month and the collapse of the Khmer Rouge as a fighting force, Hun Sen acted to control any accountability process. In late 1998 he hosted two of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, at his home for a champagne toast. Instead of arresting the two, Hun Sen said the country should “bury the past.” This led to a backlash among victims and others in Cambodia and internationally, leading Hun Sen to agree to negotiate with the UN on setting up a tribunal. Hun Sen rejected UN proposals for a fully independent tribunal, and then repeatedly delayed progress towards the establishment of a court until the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, withdrew from negotiations in 2002, saying the UN should not participate in a court that did not meet international standards of independence and fairness.  But the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution compelling the UN secretariat to resume negotiations and agree to a tribunal formula acceptable to Hun Sen. The agreement was concluded in June 2003.

After nearly nine years and more than US$205 million in expenditures, the ECCC has brought to trial only five Khmer Rouge leaders. In Case 001, Kang Gech Iev alias Duch, head of the Khmer Rouge central torture and execution center S-21, known as Tuol Sleng, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Nuon Chea, who was number two in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy under Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge chief of state,  are currently appealing their convictions and sentences of life imprisonment in Case 002/1 for crimes against humanity. They are also on trial for other counts, including genocide, in Case 002/2. However, their advanced age and poor health means it is highly unlikely Case 002/2 will reach a final judgment, not expected until mid-2019. A fourth suspect, Ieng Sary, died in UN custody after delays caused by Hun Sen. Another suspect, Ieng Thirith, who spent almost five years in UN detention, was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

In November 2008, then-international prosecutor Robert Petit proposed investigations into five additional suspects, including two former Khmer Rouge military commanders—Sou Met and Meas Muth—and three former Khmer Rouge local party bosses—Aom An, Im Chem, and Yim Tit. However, Petit’s Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, rejected Petit’s proposal. In June 2010, then-international investigating judge Marcel Lemonde attempted to launch preliminary judicial investigations into the additional suspects, with Sou Met and Meas Muth designated as Case 003, and Aom An, Im Chem, and Yim Tit designated as Case 004. Following the rules of the ECCC, he did so over the objections of his Cambodian counterpart, You Bunleng. In May 2012, a successor international investigating judge resigned, announcing that his work had been obstructed for manifestly political reasons by a “highly hostile environment” that “severely impeded” the day-to-day performance of his duties. He specified that there was reason to believe that this blockage included “serious interference” in both Cases 003 and 004 by You Bunleng and his Cambodian staff. The efforts of the current international investigating judge, Mark Harmon, have been undertaken without the cooperation of You Bunleng, undermining a process during which Case 004 suspect Sou Met died.

Hun Sen and Cambodian prosecutors and judges appointed to the ECCC have repeatedly refused to cooperate with prosecutions of additional suspects. In power since 1985, Hun Sen has asserted without evidence that further prosecutions would threaten political stability in the country. Many senior government officials and prominent figures in Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) are also former Khmer Rouge commanders and local leaders.

The prime minister’s role in obstructing the tribunal has been clear, Human Rights Watch said. In May 2008, Hun Sen secretly dispatched Deputy Prime Minister Sok An to instruct Cambodian ECCC judicial officers about the prime minister’s opposition to prosecutions of former local Khmer Rouge leaders and assure them that if the UN attempted to push ahead with them, the government would block this. In March 2009, Hun Sen publicly declared his “absolute stand” against prosecutions going beyond the suspects then already in custody. After Hun Sen met in October 2010 with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong stated that Hun Sen “clearly affirmed” that no further cases would be allowed, specifying that “successful convictions will finish with case two.” This was followed by an admonition from Information Minister Khieu Kanharith that if UN international jurists or staff wanted “to go into Case 003 or Case 004,” they should instead “just pack their bags and return home.” On February 26, 2015, Hun Sen publicly reiterated his opposition to the ECCC, saying it was on the verge of going “beyond the limit” and causing a civil war, although the Khmer Rouge movement no longer exists and there is no possibility of this happening.

“Hun Sen has worked to thwart an independent Khmer Rouge tribunal from the outset,” Adams said. “The UN was brought in to ensure judicial independence and that cases would be based on evidence instead of politics, but it is now clear that political interference means that this will never happen. The hope that the tribunal might develop into an independent and impartial court is no longer sustainable.”

Harmon’s charging of Im Chem and Meas Muth is based on a finding of “clear and consistent evidence indicating” that Im Chem may be responsible for crimes against humanity against Cambodians and Meas Muth may be responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes against Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thais, and Westerners. Under the primarily civil law procedures governing the ECCC, charges do not lead directly to trial, but are only a stage in investigating judge work during which the inculpatory and exculpatory evidence is further weighed. The prosecution can only take the case to trial if the investigating judge formally indicts the person charged. In the cases of Im Chem and Meas Muth, Harmon has not made a final decision on whether or not the evidence is sufficient to indict them. If, after considering additional evidence, including that arising from defense motions, he decides the evidence is insufficient, the charges would be dismissed. Additional charges could also be brought against the suspects.

Im Chem and Meas Muth retain the presumption of innocence. The filing of charges permits their defense teams access to their judicial investigation files. They could only be found guilty after a trial following indictment.

According to the available evidence, the two charged were key Khmer Rouge leaders in areas of Cambodia where many very serious crimes were committed, Human Rights Watch said. Im Chem was the Communist Party secretary—making her the top political figure—of Preah Net Preah district in northwestern Cambodia. Meas Muth was the secretary—de facto commander—of Khmer Rouge Division 164, in the port town of Kompong Som.

An ECCC spokesperson explained that charges had been filed against them in absentia because it had not been possible to “issue and execute” arrest warrants for them. Harmon is also investigating two other former local Khmer Rouge leaders—Aom An and Yim Tit—whom he may also charge in absentia, also under investigation files opened in November 2008 and naming them as suspects in the commission of genocide and crimes against humanity. Details about Im Chem, Meas Muth, Aom An, and Yim Tit are provided in an appendix, below.

According to the tribunal formula imposed upon the UN secretariat, ECCC judges and co-prosecutors include a minority nominated by the UN secretary-general, all of whom are non-Cambodian, and a majority effectively appointed on the approval of Hun Sen, all of whom were selected from the CPP-controlled Cambodian judiciary. According to the 2003 agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government setting up the ECCC, only the government’s security forces are empowered to conduct arrests if suspects refuse to answer a judge’s summons to be apprised of the charges against them. In the cases of Im Chem and Meas Muth, the police either disobeyed a judicial order to execute the warrants or indicated they would not carry them out if called upon to do so.

“Hun Sen’s obstructing justice for victims and interference with the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s independence has long angered and frustrated the UN and donors, but they have always looked the other way,” Adams said. “But when an independent, UN-selected judge has conducted serious investigations and concluded that specific individuals should be charged but is blocked on political grounds, the UN and donors should withdraw.”

Appendix – Allegations in Cases 003 and 004

The information in this section is primarily from publicly available leaked ECCC prosecution filings, with additional material from other sources, public and private, including Human Rights Watch research. The evidence adduced by judge Harmon’s investigation remains secret.

Charged Person Im Chem, alias Srei Chem
Im Chem is a native of Tram Kak district in what the Khmer Rouge designated Sector 13 of its Southwest Zone, which was led by the late Ta Mok, the zone secretary. Her family became involved in the Cambodian Communist movement from at least the 1960s, and she was active as a cadre in the movement from the outbreak of the civil war in 1970.

In 1976, Im Chem became a representative of Southwest Zone peasants in the Khmer Rouge-appointed People’s Assembly, while her husband, Nop Nhen, was a district secretary in the zone. In mid-1977, she and Nhen were sent to Sector 5 in the Northwest Zone, where she became secretary of Preah Net Preah district and her husband secretary of Sisophon district. She remained in this post through the end of 1978.

The transfer of Im Chem and her husband to the Northwest Zone coincided with the beginning of one of the escalating waves of purges of the original Khmer Rouge cadre there and also with the arrival in the Northwest Zone of many new Khmer Rouge officials from other zones to replace those purged. Im Chem and the other new cadre allegedly participated in further purges through early 1979.

Some of those purged in Preah Net Preah district and neighboring parts of Sector 5 after Im Chem was put into a position of authority were sent for torture and extrajudicial execution at S-21 in Phnom Penh, while others were killed or detained for punitive forced-labor and re-education locally, including at a number of sites in Preah Net Preah over which Im Chem directly presided or at least had some influence, such as Phnom Trayoung. The scope of the purges greatly intensified in mid-1978 and escalated by year’s end amid violent infighting among rival Khmer Rouge power networks.

Im Chem also allegedly presided over forced labor for the construction of auxiliary water-control works linked to the Sector 5 Trapeang Thmar dam and irrigation project. Building began before she arrived but was only completed after she was put in charge of Preah Net Preah. The very harsh conditions imposed on the laborers resulted in many deaths. Some laborers were executed at the water-control worksite for complaining about conditions or being unable to cope with the demands. Moreover, the general conditions imposed on the overall population of Preah Net Preah were extraordinarily difficult and worsened in many parts of the district during the period Im Chem was in charge, with large numbers of deaths from starvation and disease. Those who complained or were deemed “lazy” for failing to do the required work were subject to execution or detention at punitive forced labor and re-education sites throughout the district.

Im Chem allegedly presided over a wave of killings of people suspected of harboring anti-regime sentiments as Khmer Rouge rule disintegrated in late 1978-early 1979 in the face of Vietnamese military advances, such as at Phnom Trayoung. Throughout Im Chem’s tenure as Preah Net Preah district secretary, executions and punitive forced labor particularly targeted people purportedly associated with the previous government, the Khmer Republic, those linked to purged local cadre, and those deemed to be “Vietnamese.”

Charged Person Meas Muth, alias Achar Nen
Meas Muth was involved in the Cambodian Communist movement from at least the 1960s, when he was part of a revolutionary network of Buddhist monks in pagodas in Phnom Penh, most of them originating from the Southwest Zone.

After the civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Republic began in 1970, Meas Muth became deputy secretary of Southwest Zone Sector 13. By this time Meas Muth had married one of the daughters of Southwest Zone Secretary Ta Mok. In 1973, Meas Muth was made secretary of Southwest Zone Division 3, which fought Khmer Republic forces in Takeo, Kampot, and Kampong Speu provinces. On April 17, 1975, some detachments of the division entered Phnom Penh, while others advanced on the port town of Kampong Som. Division 3 was involved in the forced relocation of urban residents of both towns to the countryside and mass extrajudicial executions of defeated Khmer Republic officers and officials.

After the Khmer Rouge victory, Meas Muth became secretary of Center Division 164, which incorporated newly established maritime navy and related specialized units. It was headquartered in the Kampong Som area, with bases in several ports along the sea coast and on islands in the Gulf of Siam. Meas Muth had command over its 8,000 to 10,000 personnel. He also became secretary of Kampong Som municipality, which after the forced removal of its previous urban dwellers was partly repopulated by several thousand civilian port workers and other civilian workers assigned to industries in and around the town. Meas Muth reportedly shared authority over this new worker population with various national ministries, but had primary responsibility for Kampong Som security. He also allegedly had responsibility over some parts of the neighboring Sector 37 of the post-war West Zone, into which many previous Kampong Som residents had been transferred as “new people” under inhumane conditions that were among the harshest in Cambodia. Meas Muth was an assistant to the Khmer Rouge Central Committee.

Division 164 reported to the General Staff and Military Committee, headed by Standing Committee Member Son Sen and Party Secretary Pol Pot respectively. Meas Muth underwent political training at the Central Committee level. He frequently attended gatherings under General Staff auspices with other center division and center military unit secretaries, at which they reported on their units’ activities, received party instructions and endorsed party policies. These meetings dealt in particular with Khmer Rouge policies and practices regarding the elimination of the Khmer Rouge’s purported internal and external enemies, characterized as “national defense work.” This included the execution of internal enemies and cross-border attacks on villages in Vietnam.  

Meas Muth remained in direct charge of Division 164 until late 1978, when he was promoted and given new duties. He became a member of the General Staff, is believed to have been elevated to de facto Central Committee membership, and was given full political and military authority over part of the Cambodian border (Sector 505) with Vietnam and command of Center units deployed there.

Like other Khmer Rouge military units at all levels throughout the country, Division 164 had responsibility at least for general security around the perimeters of its places of deployment in the Kampong Som area. It arrested workers accused of being “enemies” in or around the town and also, allegedly, ordinary people deemed suspicious in nearby areas of Sector 37, either detaining them for interrogation and execution itself or turning them over to local security offices for disposition. The division reportedly took more direct charge of security vis-à-vis the civilian population of Kampong Som in 1977 following a purge of non-Division 164 Khmer Rouge, which Meas Muth allegedly assisted. It also had primary responsibility for identifying alleged “enemies” in its own ranks, either sending them to its own Security Office at Wat Entanhean in Kampong Som, to its forced labor re-education site at Stung Hav, to other punitive locations under the division’s own authority, or to S-21.

Meas Muth or his immediate subordinates allegedly ordered executions of both division personnel and ordinary people, without reference to higher levels of authority. The inhumane conditions enforced at sites such as Stung Hav also led to deaths from starvation and disease among the laborers. Division 164 cooperated closely with S-21 in arresting division cadre and fighters identified as “enemies” by S-21. Such arrests started as early as 1976 and continued through 1978. Many of the early purge victims sent to S-21 were Division 164 cadre and fighters originating in the East Zone. Starting in 1976, cadre of Division 164 were transferred to other Center units to assist in purging them or to replace cadre already purged. Meas Muth attended meetings at the General Staff in which the purge processes in other parts of Cambodia were discussed.

As the senior-most Khmer Rouge military authority involved in maritime operations after April 17, 1975, Meas Muth was directly in charge of Division 164 detachments patrolling large parts of the Gulf of Siam, where they occasionally engaged Vietnamese or Thai Navy vessels and more often attacked civilian Thai and Vietnamese fishing boats and boats carrying Vietnamese civilians trying to flee abroad. Thai and Vietnamese civilians were killed during these attacks. Vietnamese military personnel and civilians seized were sent to S-21 for execution, notably after the Khmer Rouge carried out attacks against Vietnam. Some captured Thai and a small number of Westerners intercepted by Division 164 off the coast were also killed at S-21.

In late 1978, Meas Muth allegedly exercised Central Committee and General Staff authority to conduct a purge of the Khmer Rouge and local population there, with some victims sent to S-21 and others reportedly executed locally, while he appointed a new corps of cadre to posts in Sector 505 and to Center divisions deployed in areas of operation under his command.

Suspect Aom An, alias Tho An
Aom An joined the Khmer Rouge after being a Buddhist monk in a pagoda under the movement’s influence in the Khmer Rouge Southwest Zone. After the Khmer Rouge victory on April 17, 1975, Aom An was appointed secretary of Kandal Steung district of Sector 25 of the Southwest Zone, under the authority of Zone Secretary Ta Mok. Sector 25 comprised territories south and east of Phnom Penh, the population of which was forcibly transferred to previously Khmer Rouge-controlled zones after April 17.

A large proportion of the Phnom Penh population was initially transferred as “new people” to Kandal Steung and other districts of Sector 25, where many accused of being Khmer Republic officers or officials were soon executed by local security offices. Many others were subjected to forced labor and inhumane conditions, as a result of which they began to die of starvation and disease. Much of this “new people” population and other residents of Sector 25 were then subjected to a second wave of forced transfer in late 1975, sent in large numbers in an inhumane manner to distant parts of Cambodia, with considerable numbers dying on the way or soon after arrival.

By 1976, Aom An was transferred to Sector 35, where he was a member of the Sector Committee. In this capacity, he oversaw forced labor, including construction of irrigation and other water-control works at the sector level and in its districts, where the inhumane working conditions imposed brought about many deaths from starvation and disease. He is also believed to have shared authority with other Sector 35 officials over the Sector Security Office and its many district security offices and lower-level detention facilities, which, like those elsewhere in Cambodia, were responsible for large-scale extrajudicial executions, torture and other inhumane treatment of people arbitrarily detained as “traitors,” “enemies” or “no-good elements.”

Although most of those so accused in Sector 35 in this period were allegedly linked politically, socially, or through family ties with the defeated Khmer Republic, from 1976 on they included people from within the ranks of the Khmer Rouge, its local administration and armed forces. They were arrested on district, sector or zone authority, on account of their supposed associations with the Khmer Republic, for purported connections to Vietnam, or because of other unsubstantiated “traitorous tendencies.” They also included members of the local Cham community, an Islamic ethnic minority targeted for repression, especially after the Cham reacted to the persecution with outbreaks of insurrection.

Sometime between March and May 1977, Aom An was transferred and given a major promotion. He became secretary of Sector 41 in what had previously been the Khmer Rouge’s North Zone and was soon re-designated the Central Zone, of which he was made deputy secretary under Ke Pork, a member of the Khmer Rouge Central Committee. As zone deputy secretary, Aom An is believed to have joined Pork on the Central Committee, the Khmer Rouge’s second-highest leadership body, with nationwide authority and subordinate only to the Standing Committee. It normally gathered in Phnom Penh at least once every six months to report to the Standing Committee and receive its instructions.

Aom An arrived in Sector 41 in the middle of a large-scale purge within the local Khmer Rouge ranks and an upsurge in the elimination of both “new people” relocated from former Khmer Republic areas and long-resident “veteran people.” All of this was under instructions from the Standing Committee and presided over by Pork, while Aom An reportedly played a major role, and witnesses allege he personally gave instructions to seek out alleged “enemies” and other such elements.

Many victims of the intra-party purges in the North/Central Zone were sent to S-21 in Phnom Penh, where they were interrogated under torture and then executed. Lower-level Khmer Rouge cadre, “new people” and other members of the local population were extrajudicially executed or detained indefinitely under extremely inhumane conditions locally, mostly in district or lower-level and sector security offices in Sector 41 and elsewhere. As Sector 41 secretary, Aom An had direct authority over that sector’s subordinate districts and lower administrative levels, ruling over territories in which increasingly inhumane practices were imposed on the population as a whole, while as zone deputy secretary, he had at least some authority in parts of its territory beyond Sector 41.

Aom An presided over Kang Meas district, where alleged genocide was committed against the Cham from the second half of 1977. Aom An is also implicated in a general escalation during 1978 of alleged crimes against humanity in the Central Zone and in Sector 41 in particular, with victims among all segments of the population, including members of the Khmer Rouge. As zone deputy secretary, he was present as an authority at the major zone forced labor site to construct the “1 January Dam” and related irrigation works, a water-control project in Sectors 42 and 43 started before his arrival but only completed once he was in place, and where many workers were extrajudicially executed or died from starvation or disease.

Suspect Yim Tit
Yim Tit is another native of Tram Kak district, Takeo province. Yim Tit was active in the Communist movement since at least the 1960s, having been a Buddhist monk first in Takeo and then in Phnom Penh. He eventually married a sister of Ta Mok. During the 1970-75 civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Republic, Yim Tit became a leading cadre of Kirivong district in Southwest Zone Sector 13. By April 17, 1975, Yim Tit was party secretary for Kirivong district, which bordered Vietnam. At some point, Yim Tit also reportedly became at least a member of the Sector 13 Committee, which is believed to have given him at least some authority over the entire sector.

As Kirivong party secretary, Yim Tit exercised direct authority over the district’s population, which from April 1975 included “new people” forcibly transferred from areas previously under Khmer Republic administration. He also had authority over a district security office, eventually located at Wat Pratheat, and lower-level security operations, which were responsible for identifying and ensuring the extrajudicial execution of alleged former Khmer Republic officers and officials and others, including long-term local residents accused of being “traitors” or “enemies.” Other people, “new people” and longer-term residents accused of being “no-good elements” or having supposedly untoward political “tendencies,” were arrested and held in security or detention offices throughout the district for hard labor re-education. Many died. Yim Tit also oversaw a Kirivong administration that imposed inhumane living conditions leading to many deaths.

In mid-1978, Yim Tit was reassigned with a significant promotion to the Northwest Zone, where he became secretary of Sector 1. He also became an important member of the Zone Committee, of which Ta Mok had become secretary, concurrently with many other leadership posts, after a long series of murderous purges had virtually eliminated the original leading cadre corps of the Northwest Zone. Yim Tit directly controlled at least Sector 1 and its subordinate districts and units and is believed to have had authority over at least some other parts of the Northwest. As such, he allegedly presided over the completion of the purge of veteran cadre at the local level and an escalated “cleansing” of the population as a whole, during which many were sent for extrajudicial execution at sector and district security offices or killed in other locations.

Certain groups in Sector 1, notably the ethnic Khmer Krom community and the last remnants of Cambodia’s resident Vietnamese and those deemed Vietnamese, were evidently targeted for total elimination, while large numbers of people forcibly transferred from the East Zone in connection with the mid-1978 purges there were also killed. Conditions of life in the Northwest became even worse, resulting in upsurges in deaths from starvation and disease.