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Top Khmer Rouge Case Ends, With Future Trials Uncertain

Khieu Samphan, defendant at Cambodia tribunal
Khieu Samphan, center, one of the last Khmer Rouge officials to face trial at the UN-Cambodia tribunal, which has heard final arguments.

Almost four decades after the ideologically crazed communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge fought its way to power in Cambodia, vowing to create a new society but instead leaving up to two million people dead in its wake, arguments in the cases of two top leaders have closed. The verdict of the court will not be known until sometime in 2014, though in the meantime attention has turned to what may or may not happen next in this long-overdue reckoning for the atrocities that occurred in this largely Buddhist country from 1975 to 1979.

The last two of the four Khmer Rouge officials to face trial were Nuon Chea, the movement’s chief ideologue and “brother Number Two” to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge founder and leader, and Khieu Samphan, the Cambodian head of state during that era. They were among four defendants grouped together in what was labeled Case 002 by the  Khmer Rouge tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia — an unusual hybrid tribunal that partners the Cambodian government with the United Nations in a troubled legal and administrative relationship fraught by shortages of funds.

The third of the four officials, Ieng Sary, the international face of the Khmer Rouge as foreign minister, died in March this year at age 87. The fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, who had the bizarrely cruel title of minister of social affairs, has been declared unfit for trial, suffering from dementia. Ieng Thirith was the wife of Ieng Sary; her sister was married to Pol Pot, who died, apparently of natural causes, in 1998.

None of the defendants were willing to accept blame for horrific crimes against humanity and genocide. To the end they characterized the accusations against them as “lies” and sought to portray the Vietnamese and others (including the United States) as responsible for Cambodia’s ghastly implosion. The Vietnamese army, in league with the current Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Pol Pot faction of the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen, a regional Khmer Rouge official belonging to another pro-Vietnamese faction, still has numerous former Khmer Rouge officials in his government.

In a separate earlier trial, Case 001, charges were brought against Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who ran the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, where Khmer Rouge victims (many of them also Khmer Rouge members caught up in the paranoia of their higher-up officials) were tortured and sent into killing fields to be shot and buried in a mass grave. Duch, who admitted to overseeing the torture and killing of thousands of people, was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2010 and sentenced to prison. UN and UN-related tribunals do not employ the death penalty.

The hostility — some say fear — in which Hun Sen holds the Khmer Rouge tribunal stems, many Cambodians and international legal experts say, from the possibility that the court, with international as well as Cambodian prosecutors and judges, will eventually turn on some of his colleagues or others close to him in government. Prosecutors have already registered Cases 003 and 004 without publicly naming the accused.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh
A torture chamber in Tuol Sleng, a Khmer Rouge prison that is now a museum. ADAM JONES

In an October report, the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been closely monitoring the tribunal since before it began operating officially in 2007, called on international organizations and countries not to let these cases be abandoned, saying “the tribunal remains the appropriate mechanism to provide genuine and credible justice for Khmer Rouge atrocities.” The two potentially next cases will, the Open Society Justice Initiative says, shape the legacy of the court.

“The two cases — known as 003 and 004 and involving five suspects — have been before the court’s co-investigating judges for three years, the report, “The Future of Cases 003 and 004 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia,” said. “The Cambodian government has repeatedly said it is opposed to the two cases going forward; the resulting controversy has contributed to the resignation of two international co-investigating judges at the tribunal in the past year, with both citing perceived political interference as grounds for stepping down.”

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The new cases cover allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Labor victims died of exposure and disease in forced labor, in addition to thousands of executions, during the Khmer Rouge years.

An American, Mark Harmon, has now joined the court as an investigating judge. The Open Society report “urges the UN to safeguard the ECCC’s judicial and investigative integrity, and prevent these critical cases from being shelved for political and/or financial reasons. Specifically, the UN must demand that both Judge Harmon, and his Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, be enabled to fulfill their legal and ethical duties.”

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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