Im Chaem, a former Khmer Rouge official who was charged by a United Nations-backed tribunal with crimes against humanity including mass murder, extermination and enslavement, has converted to Christianity under the tutelage of a man who survived a forced labor camp she oversaw.
“I was redeemed,” she told VOA Khmer Friday by phone from her home in Anlong Veng, a district in northwest Cambodia known as the final Khmer Rouge stronghold.
“People have accused me of killing others. That’s wrong,” said the 75-year-old grandmother, a Buddhist by birth. “I have never used violence or threatened anyone. I did not accept the accusations of wrongdoing, as I did only the right.”
This Sunday, Im Chaem will hold worship services in her O Angre village home for the third time since her baptism Jan. 22. She plans to pray with seven church members, a congregation that includes members of her family who converted with her and friends.
There will be Bible study, perhaps from the New Testament’s Book of John, which Im Chaem told VOA she appreciates for its fairness and the verse 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Last year, on Feb. 22, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal tasked with trying those accused of the most horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979 dismissed the case against Im Chaem. The court found that she “was neither a senior leader nor otherwise one of the most responsible officials” of the regime.
Weeks earlier, in December, U.N. prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian said in a statement that Im Chaem “played a key role in the commission of crimes which led to many thousands of deaths.” International prosecutors said in a statement that Im Chaem had had been selected by the Khmer Rouge to lead a cleansing campaign in northwest Cambodia.
Im Chaem had refused to cooperate with the court.
The charges, which she had denied in the past, stemmed from her tenure as deputy secretary of the Koh Andet District in her native Takeo province and her role as district chief of the Preah Net Preah district in Banteay Meancheay province. With a colleague, she may have been responsible for as many as 560,000 deaths, according to The New York Times.
When the charges against Im Chaem were dismissed, Neth Pheaktra, tribunal spokesman, said there had been no pressure from the government to drop the case.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, as with many in Cambodia’s government and military, is a former Khmer Rouge functionary. He has cautioned the tribunal that prosecutions could lead to civil war, and international critics have accused the government of not cooperating with the tribunal.
Since its inception in 2006, the tribunal has convicted three people: two senior leaders and Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch and the commandant of Tuol Sleng, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison. He converted to Christianity in 1996 and was convicted of war crimes in 2010 in the torture and killing of more than 14,000 prisoners.
Khmer Rouge converts
Christopher LaPel, a Cambodian pastor for the Golden West Christian Church in Los Angeles and a founding leader of the Cambodian Christian Church in northwest Cambodia, converted to Christianity in 1979 while in a Thai refugee camp, where he’d fled as the Khmer Rouge fell to the invading Vietnamese.
LaPel converted Duch, who joined about 2 percent of the population in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.
LaPel also converted Im Chaem, who oversaw construction in Trapeang Thma, where enslaved Cambodians, including LaPel, built a dam by hand.
On Thursday evening, LaPel told VOA, “While many people may hate her, I love her.” He was determined to help her find peace after living through the tumult of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge era, he told VOA.
In November, while visiting Cambodia, LaPel was listening to VOA and heard about developments in Im Chaem’s case before the tribunal. He decided to find her and traced his onetime nemesis to Oddar Meanchey province and then to her village.
“It’s true that Mrs. Im Chaem received Jesus Christ as her savior God on November 6, 2017,” he told VOA, adding that her husband and children also converted.
“She accepted Christ because she heard testimonies and gospels from her Khmer Rouge comrades,” LaPel said. “They give their testimony about their life to her, that God changed them, that before they had never known what’s peace and what’s love.
“And she has been through all these kinds of issues, that her life had no direction and was empty,” LaPel said. “When she decided, she knows that only Jesus can give her harmony, peace, love, hope in her life and her family and God can forgive her sins.”
When asked if those sins were those set forth in the charges the tribunal dropped, LaPel said, “The sins or issues relating to Khmer Rouge era, we did not know if she was involved or not. It is the personal relationship between her and God only.”
Im Chaem told VOA she has felt relieved since she converted, in part because a mysterious illness afflicting her son Loeung, who also converted, is abating.
She insisted that her Christian faith is steadfast. “I will never change,” she said. “God has come into my heart and helps me to spiritually grow.”