PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- An American combat photographer said his picture of captured U.S.-backed Cambodian officials, hours before they were "bludgeoned to death" by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in 1975, is the most important testimony he gave at an international tribunal.

Today, a new American Embassy covers the spot where the officials were executed 37 years ago, when Khmer Rouge guerrillas seized the capital Phnom Penh.

Photographer Al Rockoff also said the Khmer Rouge's defense lawyers appeared to be trying to get him to say that Pol Pot's victorious rebels were divided into "factions".

The defense may have wanted him to say that, so the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial could claim they were not responsible for any deaths or other criminal policies during their "killing fields" regime.

During Pol Pot's 1975-1979 back-to-the-jungle dictatorship, 1.7 million Cambodians died from executions, torture and other official policies which inflicted starvation and disease on the population.

Mr. Rockoff testified at the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), on January 28 and 29, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

"I assume they were trying to establish whether or not there were differing factions among the Khmer Rouge...questioning me on the line of trying to get me to admit there were factions among them," Mr. Rockoff said afterwards in an interview reflecting on his testimony.

"I explained that different [Khmer Rouge] units, from different directions, coming into the city does not denote factions. It's just different elements of the military unit," Mr. Rockoff said.

"They were interested very specifically in the events of April 17, 1975," the gruff, gray-haired, moustached photographer said.

"I was here. I was an eyewitness. A number of my photographs have been entered in as evidence," he said.

"One that is very critical -- it's a specific point in history, a turning point in history -- it's April 17th in the afternoon. At the Ministry of Information. Two dozen or so [U.S.-backed President] Lon Nol regime officials on the left, and the Khmer Rouge on the right.

"The last of the old Lon Nol regime. I found out years later, they were taken, marched down the road north from there to the Circle Sportif and bludgeoned to death."

The ECCC was established to determine the guilt of four former top officials who are now elderly men -- Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary, ideologue Nuon Chea, and Kaing Guek Eav who is also known as Duch -- plus Ieng Sary's wife Ieng Thirith.

Ieng Thirith, was social affairs minister during Pol Pot's reign, but she was deemed to be suffering dementia and unable to stand trial.

Ieng Sary died on March 14 after refusing to testify.

In 2012, after confessing, Duch was sentenced to life imprisonment for commanding the S-21 Tuol Sleng torture chamber in Phnom Penh, which sent 12,000 to 16,000 people to their death.

Mr. Rockoff, 64, is a respected war photographer who currently divides his time between Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Phnom Penh.

He is working on a book of his photographs -- "a pictorial war and peace" -- portraying Cambodia from 1970 to today.

"Mr. Rockoff is rather an institution in Phnom Penh. Everyone more or less knows him," Michael G. Karnavas, a lawyer for the Khmer Rouge, told the tribunal.

"We know him from the movie 'The Killing Fields,' played by John Malkovich," Mr. Karnavas said.

In real life, Mr. Rockoff considers that film important but dislikes Mr. Malkovich's fictional portrayal of him, because it implies Mr. Rockoff was incompetent in totally fabricated dramatic scenes.

Starting when he was 18 years old, Mr. Rockoff served eight years of active duty in the U.S. army.

Four of those years was as a combat photographer in Vietnam from 1967-1971 -- including two months in Cambodia during a U.S. military incursion from Vietnam in 1970.

After his army discharge in February 1973, Mr. Rockoff returned to Cambodia to work.

At that time, U.S. Air Force B-52s continued to bomb Cambodia for six more months, so Mr. Rockoff became a freelance photographer in the ravaged Southeast Asian country.

From April 1973 until May 1975 he freelanced for the Associated Press, The New York Times, Newsweek Time magazine and other media, and was severely injured by shrapnel.

On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge guerrillas entered Phnom Penh.

While photographing the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuating a hospital on that horrific day, "a Khmer Rouge with a pistol put it to my head. The two behind me moved aside, I guess so that they would not get splattered," he testified.

Hours later, at the Information Ministry, Mr. Rockoff and two foreign journalists saw a group of captured Cambodian officials.

They included Prime Minister Long Boret and Lon Non, the younger brother of self-exiled U.S.-backed President Lon Nol, plus generals, cabinet ministers and others.

"They were all marched to the Circle Sportif, which is the site of the current American Embassy, where they were bludgeoned to death. That is what we heard," Mr. Rockoff testified, referring to later reports describing the executions hours after he photographed the group.

Ieng Sary reportedly confirmed in November 1975 that Long Boret and Lon Non were among those executed by a Khmer Rouge "People's Council".


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)