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Nuon Chea, Khmer Rouge’s infamous ‘Brother No. 2,’ dies at 93

Nuon Chea at a war crimes trial in Phnom Penh in 2018.
Nuon Chea at a war crimes trial in Phnom Penh in 2018.Mark Peters/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia/AP/Extraordinary Chambers In The Courts Of Cambodia via AP

WASHINGTON — Nuon Chea, the infamous ‘‘Brother No. 2’’ who presided over some of the worst atrocities of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia in the late 1970s and ultimately was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, died Aug. 4 in Phnom Penh. He was 93.

The Associated Press reported the death. No other details were immediately available.

As the secretive chief ideologue and deputy of the radical communist regime led by Pol Pot, he was the official mainly responsible for devising and operating the Khmer Rouge killing machine — carrying out a policy of mass executions that became a hallmark of Cambodia’s holocaust. It is estimated that about 2 million people died, roughly a quarter of the country’s population, from summary executions, famine, disease, and overwork during the Khmer Rouge’s brief but brutal reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.

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Known as ‘‘Pol Pot’s shadow,’’ Nuon Chea was convicted of crimes against humanity by a special UN-backed tribunal in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was 88 at the time, the oldest and most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leader and one of two defendants in the case. Khieu Samphan, the regime’s titular former president, was convicted with him.

After a second lengthy trial, the tribunal in 2018 also found Nuon Chea guilty of genocide against minority Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese and handed him another life sentence.

According to a former Khmer Rouge security chief and prison warden, Nuon Chea personally oversaw massive purges of suspected ‘‘traitors’’ within Khmer Rouge ranks. Thousands were tortured into making bogus confessions at the Tuol Sleng prison in the capital, Phnom Penh, and were subsequently executed. At least 14,000 prisoners passed through the former high school’s gates. Only seven survived.

It was Nuon Chea, not Pol Pot, who directly ordered the killings, the former security chief, Kaing Khek Iev, better known as Duch, told journalist Nate Thayer in a series of interviews in 1999. Duch’s account was supported by documents left behind at Tuol Sleng.

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In the regime’s final days before Vietnamese invasion forces captured Phnom Penh in January 1979, Nuon Chea also ‘‘ordered me to kill all the remaining prisoners’’ at Tuol Sleng, Duch said. Among them were at least two Americans, who were captured while sailing a yacht off the Cambodian coast in late 1978 and tortured into ‘‘confessing’’ that they worked for the CIA.

For some purge victims, Duch recalled, Nuon Chea demanded that Duch bring photos of their dead bodies to his office to prove they had been executed, Thayer reported in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Unlike other former Khmer Rouge leaders who were called to account for the regime’s crimes, Nuon Chea was largely unrepentant.

‘‘Believe me, if these traitors were alive, the Khmers as a people would have been finished,’’ he said, referring to those purged, in a video recorded by a Cambodian journalist before the former Khmer Rouge second-in-command was arrested in 2007. ‘‘So I dare to suggest our decision was the correct one. If we had shown mercy to these people, the nation would have been lost.’’

He added: ‘‘We didn’t kill many. We only killed the bad people, not the good.’’ Video clips of his remarks were played at his trial.

Born Lao Kim Lorn on July 7, 1926, in Cambodia’s western Battambang province, Nuon Chea grew up in a Sino-Khmer family of modest means, the third of nine children. His father was a trader and corn farmer; his mother was a seamstress. His early education was in the Thai, French, and Khmer languages.

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In 1942, he traveled to Bangkok in neighboring Thailand to complete high school and pursue higher education. (Thailand took control of Battambang during World War II, making him a Thai citizen.) Using the pseudonym Runglert Laodi, he stayed at a temple with Buddhist monks and attended a school on the premises. Starting in 1946, he studied law at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. He also joined a leftist Thai youth group and worked as a clerk in the Thai Finance Ministry.

In 1950, Nuon Chea joined the Communist Party of Thailand while still at Thammasat. Later that year, a month after starting a clerical job at the Foreign Ministry, he abandoned his studies, joined the Vietnamese-led Communist Party of Indochina, and returned to Cambodia to participate in the struggle against French colonialism. He adopted Nuon Chea as his ‘‘revolutionary name.’’

He made his way to North Vietnam in 1953 and underwent two years of training. He then returned to Phnom Penh, where he met Pol Pot for the first time. In 1960, he was elected deputy secretary of an underground party whose members were dubbed the ‘‘Khmers Rouges’’ (Red Khmers) by Cambodia’s then-leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. It later became the Communist Party of Kampuchea .

In a marriage arranged by the party, Nuon Chea in 1957 wed Ly Kim Seng, who would become a cook for Pol Pot, tasked with safeguarding him from poisoning. She and their four children survive.

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Nuon Chea formally surrendered to the Cambodian government in late 1998. He expected to be allowed to continue living modestly in remote Pailin province, but was arrested in 2007 on charges of crimes against humanity. At his trial, he blamed Vietnamese agents for virtually everything that went wrong during Khmer Rouge rule.