Nuon Chea knew this day would come. As the most senior leader of Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge regime still alive, he had years to prepare for his eventual arrest. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, Sept. 19, Cambodian military police and police special forces surrounded his small wooden home on the outskirts of Pailin, in the country's northwest, where the aging revolutionary had lived in quiet retirement with his wife since surrendering to the government in 1998.
After reading an arrest warrant, taking fingerprints and conducting a quick search of his home, officers took the 82-year-old to a waiting helicopter for a flight to Phnom Penh. By late morning he was deposited at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia the U.N.-backed tribunal established last year to prosecute those most responsible for the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge's ruthless leader, Pol Pot.
Speaking to a reporter the previous evening, Nuon Chea said he knew his arrest was imminent and he had already packed a bag for prison: Five shirts, a few pairs of trousers and an array of medication for some nagging health problems. "I gave my shirts to be washed and ironed," he said. "I want to wear nice clothes in Phnom Penh. I don't want people to look down on me."
As the helicopter ascended into the morning sky over Pailin, which remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold until the mid-1990s, groups of local villagers raised their arms to bid their former leader goodbye and to wish him good luck in his trial ahead.
Once known by his revolutionary nom de guerre Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea was Pol Pot's deputy between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated 2 million people died as their regime strove to rebuild Cambodia as an ideologically pure, agrarian society. Thousands of mass graves containing the bones of those executed by the regime, and those who simply died of starvation and disease, dot the Cambodian countryside.
"Today, 19 September 2007, the Co-Investigating Judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have charged Nuon Chea for crimes against humanity and war crimes and have placed him in provisional detention," the investigating judges said in a statement on Wednesday evening. Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the country's largest repository of information on the Khmer Rouge, says Nuon Chea's arrest was a milestone for the tribunal, which has come under criticism over the slow pace of its investigation and suspicions of government interference. "It appears that trust in the court has been restored among the public. And that is very important," Youk Chhang says. "It's a big step."
Nuon Chea is only the second Khmer Rouge leader to be charged by the tribunal. On July 31, the court charged its first suspect, Kaing Guek Eav, better know as Duch, with crimes against humanity for his role as commander of S-21, a Khmer Rouge prison and torture center. During Pol Pot's rule, an estimated 14,000 people passed through S-21, where they were interrogated, tortured and later executed.
Arrested in 1999, Duch alleged in an interview at that time that he had worked closely with Nuon Chea and that Brother Number Two had intimate knowledge of the successive waves of purges undertaken by the regime. In the Khmer Rouge chain of command, Duch likened his role at S-21 to a functionary that did the bidding of his masters including Nuon Chea. "I was like a waterboy for Nuon Chea," Duch said at the time.
The tribunal's judges say they have three more Khmer Rouge suspects in their sights, and a court official said that the trials of those charged could begin in early 2008. Awaiting his fate, Nuon Chea has so far remained unrepentant. He has said in the past that the mass killings were "not a policy" of the Khmer Rouge regime, and will admit only that "mistakes" were made under his former boss, Pol Pot. Revolution, he told TIME during an interview in 2004, is like childbirth: "At first there is much blood, but after there is a beautiful baby."