Khmer Rouge tribunal ends work after 16 years, 3 verdicts


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (UKTN) – An international court gathered in Cambodia to rule on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s, will end its ruling on Thursday. work after spending $337 million and 16 years convicting only three men of crimes.

In what would be its last session, the UN-assisted tribunal began ruling on an appeal from Khieu Samphan, the last remaining leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975-79. He was convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He appeared in court in a white windbreaker, wearing a facemask and listening to the proceedings on headphones. Seven judges were present.

Khieu Samphan was the nominal head of state of the group, but denied in his legal defense that he had real decision-making power when the Khmer Rouge waged a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, which left Cambodians to die of execution, starvation and inadequate medical care. It was ousted from power in 1979 by an invasion of the neighboring communist state of Vietnam.

“Whatever you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his latest statement of appeal to the court last year. “I will die and always remember the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die when I see I stand alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than by my actual actions as an individual.”

In his appeal, he alleged that the court made mistakes in legal proceedings and interpretations and acted unfairly. But the court noted on Thursday that his appeal did not directly question the facts of the case as presented in court. It ruled point by point on Khieu Samphan’s arguments, rejecting virtually all and saying the final verdict of several hundred pages would be official when published.

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The final statement makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan, 91, is already serving a life sentence before his 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity related to forced transfers and mass disappearances.

His co-defendant Nuon Chea, leader and chief ideologue of the Khmer Rouge, was convicted twice and received the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.

The tribunal’s only other conviction was that of Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, who was commander of Tuol Sleng Prison, where about 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Duch was convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity, murder and torture and died in 2020 at the age of 77 while serving a life sentence.

The real leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped justice. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72, while the remnants of his movement were fighting their last battles in the guerrilla war they launched after losing power.

The trials of the only other two suspects were not finalized. Former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, and his wife, former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial for dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.

Four other suspects, Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to divisions among the tribunal’s lawyers.

In an innovative hybrid arrangement, Cambodian and international lawyers were paired up at every stage, and a majority had to agree to let a case go ahead. According to the French legal proceedings used by the court, the international investigators advised the four to go to trial, but the local partners disagreed after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that there would be no more prosecutions because they claimed they could cause unrest.

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Hun Sen himself was a middle-ranking commander with the Khmer Rouge before he defected while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have similar backgrounds. He helped strengthen his political control by forming alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.

With its active work, the tribunal, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is now entering a ‘residual period’ of three years aimed at organizing its records and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.

Experts who participated in the work of the court or followed the proceedings are now pondering its legacy.

Heather Ryan, who followed the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative for 15 years, said the court succeeded in providing a measure of accountability.

“The amount of time, money and effort spent to achieve this rather limited goal can be disproportionate to the goal,” she said in a video interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado.

But she praised the lawsuits “in the country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay attention and gather information about what was happening in court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague. or somewhere else.” The Hague in the Netherlands is home to the World Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

Michael Karnavas, a US attorney who served on Ieng Sary’s defense team, said his personal expectations were limited to the quality of justice his clients would receive.

“In other words, regardless of the results, substantive and procedural, were their rights to a fair trial guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution and established law afforded them at the highest international level?” he said in an email interview. “The answer is somewhat mixed.”

“The pilot phase was less than what I consider fair. There was far too much improvisation by the judges and despite the lengthy procedure the defense was not always treated fairly,” said Karnavas, who has also appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. .

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“In the field of substantive and procedural law, there are numerous examples where the ECCC was not only right, but has further contributed to the development of international criminal law.”

There is a consensus that the tribunal’s legacy extends beyond the law books.

“The court has successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge and has shown that, while it may take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” said Craig Etcheson, who has studied and written about the crimes against humanity. Khmer Rouge and headed investigations for the Prosecutor’s Office at the ECCC from 2006 to 2012.

“The tribunal has also produced an extraordinary record of these crimes, consisting of documentation that will be studied by scientists in the coming decades, that will inform the youth of Cambodia about the history of their country, and that any attempt to explain the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.”

The fundamental issue of whether justice was served by the court’s conviction of just three men was dealt with by Youk Chhang, director of Cambodia’s Documentation Center, which holds a vast wealth of evidence of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

“Justice is sometimes made of satisfaction, recognition, rather than the number of people you persecute,” he told The UK Time News. “It’s a broad definition of the word justice itself, but when people are happy, when people are happy with the process or benefit from the process, I think we can think of it as justice.”


Peck reported from Bangkok. UKTN journalist Jerry Harmer contributed to this report.


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