(MENAFN - The Journal Of Turkish Weekly) The persecution of Cambodia's Cham Muslim people under Pol Pot was laid bare at the Khmer Rouge tribunal Monday, as the first witness to testify on charges of genocide took to the stand.
It Sen, 66, from Kompong Cham province, swore on the Quran before describing how the Islamic faith was completely outlawed after the ultra-Maoist group came to power in 1975, copies of the holy Quran were seized and torched and devotees even forced to eat pork by Khmer Rouge soldiers that took over villages and forcibly evacuated people to other provinces around the country.
He also described his remarkable escape during a purge of Cham as they were being blindfolded, marched to a river and drowned.
The genocide charges are central to what is known as Case 002/02 at the tribunal-the second phase of a trial in which elderly idealogues Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan stand accused of a litany of serious crimes.
According to a statement released by the court last week, "according to the Closing Order, people who belonged to the Cham group were systematically killed and the Communist Party of Kampuchea implemented a policy to destroy, in whole or in part the Cham group as such."
Sen told the court on Monday that Cham Muslims-the largest ethnic minority in Cambodia-spoke their own language and observed specific traditions and cultural practices, which set them apart from the dominant Khmer ethnic group, but that these were swiftly targeted by the Khmer Rouge forces that came to power April 17, 1975.
"After the Khmer Rouge came to control, all kitchenware was collected, halls built for all of us, we had to eat communally and the village was under strict Khmer Rouge control at that time. There was no more prayers, no more religion, the situation was strict. People who practiced Islam would be arrested," he told assistant prosecutor Dale Lysak during questioning.
Head coverings were banned, women and men were forced to cut their hair and "Qurans were collected and burned," Sen said.
"We were absolutely not allowed to speak the Cham language, only Khmer. We could speak Cham, but in a secret way. Not loudly. If they happened to hear, we would be taken away and killed."
In addition-and despite the fact that most who suffered under the Khmer Rouge existed on a paltry diet of a few spoons of rice per day-Cham were made to eat pork, which was given to them directly or mixed in with beef.
The meat is strictly forbidden in Islam, and some Cham were so appalled by the act that they would often vomit after ingesting it.
Sen said he had effectively lost hope for the Cham race, "because it was their policy to seriously mistreat us."
"We were absolutely prohibited from any worship and if we were to make even the smallest mistake, we would be arrested and killed."
In addition to surviving years of this mistreatment, Sen is still alive today because he was able to escape from a house where he was being held, along with other Cham, during a village-wide purge.
People were being made to undress, blindfolded and marched to a nearby river, where they were drowned. Sen managed to loosen the ties around his hands and sneak away.
"I never saw wife and [one] child again," he testified. "However, I do not know how they died. It's possible they were taken away and killed or drowned."
Sen's testimony continues Tuesday.