Police arrested the top surviving Khmer Rouge leader Wednesday, taking Nuon Chea to appear before a U.N-backed genocide tribunal for his role in the 1970s Cambodian regime blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.
Police surrounded his 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 the 82-year-old Nuon Chea — who denies any wrongdoing — into custody and put him into a car and then a helicopter for the capital, Phnom Penh, as his son and dozens of onlookers gathered to watch the historic scene in silence, witnesses said.
"My father is happy to shed light on the Khmer Rouge regime for the world and people to understand," Nuon Say said afterward.
Nuon Say said his mother fainted after seeing her husband taken away by police. He said Nuon Chea rolled down the window of the car and took one last look at his son, and said nothing.
In Phnom Penh, a convoy transported Nuon Chea from a military airport in the capital to the offices of the tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
"An initial appearance will be held today during which he will informed of the charges which have been brought against him," the tribunal said in a statement.
Nuon Chea helped Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot seize control of Cambodia's underground communist movement in the 1950s and '60s.
He later became the group's chief political ideologue during its murderous rule in the 1970s, when its radical policies caused the deaths of 1.7 million people through hunger, illnesses, overwork and execution.
Prosecutors for the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal have said there are five senior Khmer Rouge figures they have recommended for trial. Nuon Chea is the second, and highest-ranking, Khmer Rouge leader detained to appear before the panel.
Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch who headed the former Khmer Rouge S-21 prison, was the first suspect detained by the tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity. He was charged last month. The other suspects have not been publicly named.
Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said the co-investigating judges were expected to question Nuon Chea later Wednesday.
After repeated delays, the tribunal's co-investigating judges You Bun Leng and his U.N.-appointed counterpart, Marcel Lemonde, in July began investigations of former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of crimes against humanity.
Critics have warned that Nuon Chea and the other former Khmer Rouge leaders may die before ever seeing a courtroom.
Nuon Chea, considered the right-hand man to Pol Pot, has consistently denied any responsibility for the regime's mass brutality, though he said in an interview with the AP last month that he was ready to face the tribunal.
"I was president of the National Assembly and had nothing to do with the operation of the government," he said in the interview. "Sometimes I didn't know what they were doing because I was in the assembly."
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 Number Two 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.
Theary Seng said Nuon Chea's arrest was "a very good starting point" and "will definitely increase the engagement of the Cambodian people," who have been waiting to see justice done for so long already.
"Even if we don't see a conviction, at least we have witnessed a process" of searching for justice, Theary Seng said.
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.
The tribunal was created last year after seven years of contentious negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen — a former Khmer Rouge soldier — constantly bullied the world body for control of the joint venture.
With a US$56.3 million (€42 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 protocol, 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.
ABOUT FUCKING TIME. It's insulting how all this has been dealt with. A man responsible for the torture and murder of millions of his people was put under fucking house arrest for his crimes. It sickens me. I pray these guys live long enough to get what they deserve.
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