The senior-most surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge regime was arrested near the Thai border Wednesday. He has been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in the regime that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and is blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.
This is the first arrest orchestrated by a United Nations-backed tribunal in the decade-old effort to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. Nuon Chea has been living with impunity in Pailin for years, and many believed that the man whom Pol Pot – the leader of the radical movement who died in 1998 – trusted as his closest deputy would never face trial.
Some of Cambodia's top government officials were once members of the Khmer Rouge and the tribunal has long battled allegations of government interference and corruption. In recent weeks, pressure has been building inside and outside the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the UN-backed tribunal, for further signs of progress. The $56.3 million special court is already facing budgetary shortfalls and plans to launch a fundraising campaign next month.
"We have a big fish," says Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. "This is what people have been waiting for."
Nuon Chea will join Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, who has been charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly overseeing the torture of some 14,000 people at Phnom Penh's notorious S-21 torture prison. Duch, who has already served eight years in a Phnom Penh military prison, was transferred to tribunal custody in late July.
Coinvestigating judges are currently building cases against three other suspects thought to be responsible for the extreme brutality during the communists' rule. Their names have not been released publicly, but speculation has focused on three key figures: Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary; his wife, Ieng Thirith; and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan.
Before Noun Chea's arrest, about 70 police surrounded his small wooden home in Pailin and confiscated books, journals, photo albums, and cassette tapes prior to driving him, under police escort, to a waiting military helicopter.
Pailin was one of the Khmer Rouge's last strongholds, and many who live in the hard-bitten town still believe in the virtue of their revolution. Many local government officials were former Khmer Rouge members themselves.
Historians say Nuon Chea, 82, played a key role in the Khmer Rouge security apparatus, approving the systematic torture and execution at S-21. He remained active in the Khmer Rouge until he defected in 1998.
"His involvement is clear as daylight," says Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the group that has compiled much of the historical information about the period of Khmer Rouge rule, when the country was known as Democratic Kampuchea.
"Nuon Chea claimed that we – the public – have written wrong history about Democratic Kampuchea. Now the time has come for him to share his version of the history of Democratic Kampuchea in front of the court of law,"
Nuon Chea has said that as a leader he is responsible for the work of the Khmer Rouge regime, but he denies that he committed any crimes. Speaking at his home Tuesday night, the eve of his arrest, Nuon Chea said he was ready to bear witness at the court.
"I have prepared myself for seven years to fight in the court," he said. "My idea is to fight for justice, not only for me, but for all Cambodian people, and all of Democratic Kampuchea."
He had freshly laundered and ironed five shirts to bring with him to Phnom Penh – "in order to not allow those people to look down on me," he explained – which he packed along with his medication and extra trousers. A neighbor, Kim Hy, who said her husband was executed by the Khmer Rouge, raised her hands as the helicopter departed. "Please go, be lucky, be healthy and come back," she said.
• Additional reporting by Thet Sambath in Pailin.