By Holly Robertson | March 28, 2015 | The Cambodia Daily
Former Khmer Rouge official Ao An, better known by his alias “Ta An,” on Friday became the third mid-ranking cadre to be charged this month by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia over alleged crimes against humanity committed during the Pol Pot era.
More than five years after investigations into the case began, International Co-Investigating Judge Mark Harmon charged Ta An with premeditated homicide and crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, persecution on political and religious grounds, imprisonment and other inhumane acts.
Ta An, who was a deputy secretary in the Central Zone of Democratic Kampuchea, has been accused together with Ta Tith—who has not been charged—of running a network of security centers responsible for the deaths of about 140,000 people.
The charges laid Friday relate to three locations in Kompong Cham province: Kok Pring execution site, Wat Au Trakuon security center and Tuol Beng security center.
Unlike former navy chief Meas Muth and Northwest Zone district commander Im Chaem, who were charged in absentia earlier this month, Ta An appeared at the court on Friday to be formally charged, according to Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“The charged person appeared this morning before Judge Harmon and then was informed about the charges against him, and afterwards returned to his residence,” he said.
Mr. Olsen said he could not comment on why Ta An was charged in person while the other accused were not.
“All I can say is that Ta An answered a summons from the judge and appeared before Judge Harmon this morning,” he said.
The government has been steadfastly opposed to the pursuit of cases 003 and 004 against mid-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, and Cambodian Co-Investigating Judge You Bunleng has refused to assist his international counterpart in the investigations.
In an email laying out Judge Bunleng’s position on the cases, court spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that the judge did not believe it necessary to charge the suspects in the current investigations because the evidence raised doubts as to whether or not the cases were in the court’s jurisdiction.
“The national co-investigating judges regards the investigation in case 003 for completed and he has forwarded the case file [to] the co-prosecutors for their final submission,” Mr. Pheaktra said.
“In case 004, the two co-investigating judges have, in accordance with the ECCC Internal Rules, recorded a disagreement which covers the issue of charging.”
Both the government and the U.N., which signed on to participate in the tribunal in 2003, have come under fire this week for failing to secure the arrests of Meas Muth and Im Chaem, who have both expressed defiance in the face of the charges against them.
Asked why Ta An was not detained after being charged, Mr. Olsen replied: “Charging and detention are two separate issues, so there’s no automatic step that a person who gets charged gets arrested.”
Ta An has been implicated in the killing of Cham Muslims at Wat Au Trakuon security center, which is a focus of genocide charges in the current trial of Pol Pot’s second-in-command Nuon Chea and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan.
Now in his 80s and living in Battambang province’s Kamrieng district, Ta An could not be contacted Friday.
Goram Sluiter, one of Ta An’s lawyers, said the decision means that the defense team “finally” has access to the case file, which opens up the possibility of challenging sections of the case against his client.
“[I]n the past, we have filed motions that there is no jurisdiction for the court, because our client is not among the senior and most responsible persons, which is also the view of the Cambodian government, and that remains our position,” he said.
“Also, at the hearing our client stated that he is innocent, that he is not criminally responsible for the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime and that’s basically his position.”
Mak Sarin, the chief of O’Koki village, where Ta An lives, defended the former Khmer Rouge official on Friday.
“He was following their orders in that regime,” Mr. Sarin said. “I do not support the [charges] because we already have reunited and the country is peaceful.”
Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, called the latest charges “evidence of steady progress in the investigation of Case 004.”
“It does, however, increase the need for the United Nations and the court to ensure that there is no political interference in the progress of Cases 003 and 004, particularly with respect to the arrest of suspects or charged persons,” she said in an email.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Ta An, the suspect in Case 004, was the head of Takeo province’s Kraing Ta Chan security center. Another Khmer Rouge official also known as Ta An was the head of Kraing Ta Chan.