The tangled process of bringing even partial accounting and sentencing to a close in a United Nations-Cambodian joint tribunal judging the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime that decimated the country’s population in the late 1970s and destroyed all civic and economic life, is on full display again in a purpose-built courtroom near Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
Legal wrangling is centered on two issues: how and when to organize a second trial for the top two Khmer Rouge leaders still alive and in custody, and how to move ahead into new cases of others allegedly implicated in the slaughter, starvation, disease and deadly forced labor in a radical communist campaign to return the nation to Year Zero and rebuild society from the ground up. It is estimated that up to 1.8 million people died.
In the case of Nuon Chea, second in command to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who died in 1998, and Khieu Samphan, the movement’s head of state, their first trial ended in October 2013, with a judgment yet to come. Both men are in their 80s, and many advocates of swifter justice fear that they will not survive for long. Now they face a possible second trial on new charges, including genocide, which international experts say will have to be narrowly defined to stand a legal test, perhaps limited to attacks on ethnic minorities targeted by the crazed cadres of the Khmer Rouge.
But even that proposed trial, now in early stages of preparation, has been further delayed by a court order on Feb. 21 to send the two men for a medical evaluation, followed by a subsequent hearing on that issue.
Still looming on the future is the second issue: the proposed trials of five new Khmer Rouge defendants. The autocratic ruler of Cambodia, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge regional commander who has other well-known Khmer Rouge figures in his inner circle and cabinet, has always opposed the extension of trials to new cases.
The only case so far brought to a full conclusion is that of 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 mass graves. Duch, who admitted to overseeing the torture and killing of thousands of people, was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2010 and is in prison. UN and UN-related tribunals do not employ the death penalty.
Two other top Khmer Rouge leaders, the couple Ieng Sary, the movement’s foreign minister, and Ieng Thirith, who held the extraordinary title of welfare and social affairs minister in a regime that destroyed traditional Cambodian society, have escaped the court’s jurisdiction. Ieng Sary died in custody in March 2013 and Ieng Thirith, who is alive, has been judged too senile to stand trial.
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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 has also contributed 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 previously 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.