With the death last week of Chea Sim, a ruling party stalwart and former Khmer Rouge cadre, Cambodians are again reminded that the powerful are rarely prosecuted, Human Rights Watch says.
“Chea Sim’s passing is a reminder that virtually all former Khmer Rouge officials have gone unpunished for the millions of deaths and incredible suffering of ordinary Cambodians during Khmer Rouge rule,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said. “It is a mockery of justice that Chea Sim could serve in the post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian leadership for decades without ever facing an investigation, much less arrest or prosecution.”
Human Rights Watch has implicated Chea Sim—who was head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and president of the Senate—in serious crimes under the Khmer Rouge, prior to his helping Vietnamese forces overthrow the regime, in 1979.
He had been secretary of the Khmer Rouge Party Committee for Ponhea Krek District, East Zone, Sector 20, and a member of the committee from 1975-1978. His crimes, according to a recent statement by Human Rights Watch, “include the arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution of 1) former Khmer Republic officials targeted on political grounds; 2) members of Cambodia's prerevolutionary upper classes targeted on sociopolitical grounds; 3) fellow Khmer Rouge accused of political dissent; and 4) members of the Vietnamese, Cham, and Chinese ethnic groups targeted on racial, ethnic, national, and religious grounds.”
Chea Sim “oversaw a district security office and exercised authority over commune militia forces that directly committed torture and execution of people who were arrested on these various grounds and held without charge or trial,” Human Rights Watch said. “As a district party secretary and member of the higher-level sector committee, Chea Sim was implicated in the alleged enslavement of the population in these areas of the Khmer Rouge East Zone.”
These crimes were ignored by the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, which is currently trying two former leaders of the regime—Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan—Human Rights Watch said.
Ruling party's spokesman Sok Eysan dismissed the statements as biased reporting from Human Rights Watch that don’t “rely on reality.” Chea Sim had rallied to fight for the reinstatement of deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the spokesman said, and fled when internal purges began under Pol Pot.
Nate Thayer, an American journalist who interviewed Pol Pot shortly before his death, said many senior Cambodian leaders, including Chea Sim, were senior Khmer Rouge officials. “His passing certainly raises questions of the impunity given to the Khmer Rouge who were active under Pol Pot,” he said.
Peter Maguire, an American author, legal scholar and Cambodia observer, said the tribunal has been too limited in scope, compromising it “from the very beginning.” Prime Minister Hun Sen has insisted that “only a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders” would see trial, Maguire said, adding that the tribunal has done little to curb Cambodia’s impunity problem.
Veteran journalist Thet Sambath, who spent years researching the Khmer Rouge, especially Nuon Chea, said Chea Sim was responsible for more killing than Khieu Samphan, currently on trial. “He must be responsible for a greater number of deaths between 1975 and 1979,” Thet Sambath said. More details will come out in an upcoming follow-up film to his award-winning documentary, “Enemies of the People,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal has only prosecuted one side of the regime, those under Pol Pot, while failing to address another faction, those who now belong to the current government, Thet Sambath said. “Those people have enormous responsibility,” he said. “That’s why I regret that Chea Sim has passed away. I wanted him to see my film, to show him what he did at the time.”