Trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders begins

Updated On: Nov 21, 2011

The three most senior surviving leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime have gone on trial in a UN-backed tribunal. They are Nuon Chea, the former right-hand man of the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot; Khieu Samphan, former head of state; and Ieng Sary, former foreign minister. A fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary’s wife and former minister for social affairs, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she suffers from Alzheimer's disease. More than three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians continue to struggle with the trauma inflicted by the regime and the long-delayed pursuit of justice as the trial begins.

Report: Cambodia genocide: Khmer Rouge trio go on trial (BBC, 21 Nov 2011)

Report: 'Killing fields' victims await Khmer Rouge leaders trials (Herald Sun, 21 Nov 2011)

Tribunal faces difficulties

When the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) opens the trial on Monday, it will mark the first time the international community has held senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge to account for their genocidal campaign. Nonetheless, the tribunal’s proceedings have moved at a slow pace and have been marked by politicking, including charges of corruption, judicial misconduct, government interference and leaks of confidential information.

Concerns are mounting that the defendants, now in their 80s, will die before they are sentenced. Along the way, many key perpetrators of the massacre died, including Pol Pot.

Since the tribunal started in 2006, it only had one trial, that of former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias "Duch".  Duch was sentenced to 35 years in jail, later commuted to 19 years. Cambodians complained that the sentence was too light. Duch’s appeal is set for February 3 next year.

Independent experts also say that cases have been politicised and that the Cambodian government has interfered and limited the scope of investigations. Many former Khmer Rouge members hold top positions in the government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations claim that the Cambodian government intends to forestall difficult questions directed at former Khmer Rouge members now in power if cases were to proceed.

Mr Hun Sen last year told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that he would not accept any more indictments and has previously said he preferred that the ECCC leaves Cambodia, warning that the country would descend to civil war if more cases were pursued.

The defendants themselves have been accused of stalling proceedings and their unwillingness to cooperate. For example, Ieng Sary attempted to have his case thrown out and last month said he would refuse to answer questions and would remain silent during the trial.

The ECCC thus faces a crisis of confidence. With a large budget expected to reach $150 million by year-end, it is rife with resignations and public anger over its unwillingness to follow through with cases beyond the current one. The UN has also been alleged to be indifferent towards the ECCC.

Opinion: Long-awaited justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge (Washington Post, 21 Nov 2011)

Analysis: Truth eludes Cambodia as Khmer Rouge cadres face trial (National Post [Canada], 18 Nov 2011)

A major step forward

Nevertheless, the tribunal is seen as a major step forward. Tribunal spokesman Huy Vannak said the proceedings were "the most important trial in the world" because of the seniority of those involved. "It sends a message that the trial, which survivors have been waiting more than three decades for, finally begins," he said. He added that he did not know how long the trial would last but said it will take time so as to ensure that the trial is fair.

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen added, "This is the trial the Cambodian people have been waiting for, where those alleged to be the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge will stand trial accused of having made decisions and devised policies that led to crimes throughout Cambodia... We hope the start of the trial will further strengthen support for the trial proceedings among ordinary Cambodians."

Meanwhile, survivors of the regime held a remembrance ceremony at the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre outside Phnom Penh on Sunday.

80-year-old Chum Mey, a survivor from the S-21 prison, said at the ceremony, "I'm so happy and I could not sleep last night when I heard these leaders were to appear before the tribunal.'' He added, "We have been waiting for more than 30 years to hear these leaders' voice saying the true story of their reign that brought death to over a million people."

Report: 'Killing fields' victims await Khmer Rouge leaders trials (Herald Sun, 21 Nov 2011)

Report: "Killing Fields" Trial Ready to Go (The Diplomat, Nov 18, 2011)

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