Top Khmer Rouge leader arrested


Sep 19, 2007

PAILIN, Cambodia (AP) -- Police detained the top surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge on Wednesday over his role in the notorious former Cambodian regime that caused the deaths of 1.7 million people in the late 1970s.

Police surrounded Nuon Chea's home in Pailin in northwestern Cambodia near the Thai border and served him with an arrest warrant on charges of crimes against humanity, police Capt. Sem Sophal said.

Officers later took Nuon Chea, who is 82, into custody and put him on a helicopter heading for the capital, Phnom Penh, as dozens of onlookers gathered to watch the historic scene, witnesses said.

Nuon Chea ( helped the group's notorious leader Pol Pot seize control of Cambodia ('s communist movement in the 1950s and '60s and then became the movement's chief political ideologue during its rule in the 1970s, when it was blamed for the mass deaths that resulted from hunger, disease, overwork and execution.

Nuon Say, Nuon Chea's son, said his mother fainted after seeing her husband taken away by police. Nuon Say said his father "is happy to go shed light on the Khmer Rouge ( regime for the world and people to understand."

The U.N.-backed genocide tribunal investigating crimes by the Khmer Rouge was created last year after seven years of contentious negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia.

Critics have warned that Nuon Chea and the other former Khmer Rouge leaders would die before ever seeing a courtroom.

Prosecutors for the tribunal have not publicly named Nuon Chea as a suspect. But he is believed to be one of five senior Khmer Rouge figures they have recommended for trial before the panel.

He would be the second, and highest-ranking, Khmer Rouge leader detained to appear before the panel.

Reach Sambath, a tribunal spokesman, declined to comment Wednesday.

Nuon Chea has consistently denied any responsibility for the mass brutality and told The Associated Press in a July interview that he was ready to be judged by an international tribunal.

"I was president of the National Assembly and had nothing to do with the operation of the government," he told the AP. "Sometimes I didn't know what they were doing because I was in the assembly."

"I will go to the court and don't care if people believe me or not," he said.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American who lost relatives to the Khmer Rouge atrocities, said she was elated by the news of Nuon Chea's arrest.

"To have another name soon made public and to know that it is Nuon Chea, who is the Brother No. 2 in the reign of terror, is very encouraging," said Theary Seng, the director of Center for Social Development, a nonprofit group monitoring development of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Kaing Guek Eav -- commonly known as Duch, who headed the former Khmer Rouge S-21 prison -- is currently the only senior figure detained by the tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity committed during the Khmer Rouge's time in power. He was charged last month.

The late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998 and his former military chief, Ta Mok, died in 2006 in government custody.

Their senior-level colleagues, Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, live freely in Cambodia but are in declining health. They are also widely believed to be on the prosecutors' list.

With a $56.3 million budget limited to three years, trials had been expected to start this year.

But Cambodian and foreign judges spent much of the year bickering about rules and protocols, including the setting of expensive legal fees for foreign lawyers wanting to take part in the proceedings.

The tribunal is an unprecedented hybrid, with Cambodian judges holding the majority in decision-making matters but needing one supportive vote from a foreign counterpart to reach a super-majority to prevail.

It is operated under the Cambodian judicial system, often described by critics as weak, corrupt and susceptible to political manipulation.