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Over $300 million, 16 years and just three convictions: Khmer Rouge trials come to an end in Cambodia

For more than fifteen years, a court operating in a military camp on the outskirts of Phnom Penh has been working to bring justice to the horrors that killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the late 1970s. He spent more than $330 million on it. In the end, he only convicted three people.

On Thursday, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia – a court backed by the United Nations and charged with judging the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime – held its last hearing. They rejected the appeal of Khieu Samphan, 91, the last surviving leader of that fanatical communist movement, and upheld his life sentence for genocideas well as his convictions for other crimes.

As the sentence was read, Khieu Samphan, his face partially hidden by large black headphones and a white mask, sank into his seat.

During his four years in power, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge caused the death of 1.7 million Cambodians by executiontorture, starvation and untreated diseases, as they sought to abolish modernity and create an agrarian utopia.

A journalist takes a photo of former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan. AFP Photo

one of the doomed

For many Cambodians who survived one of the worst mass killings of a bloody century, the fact that the court handed down so few convictions, so many years after the atrocities were committed, the trial has been a pointless exercise. Many of the Khmer Rouge’s top officials – including its infamous leader, Pol Pot – had been long dead when the tribunal was created.

“The leaders of the Khmer Rouge have died,” said Yun Bin, 67, who was beaten, thrown into a ditch and left for dead by regime cadres. “Some victims of my people have already died”.

Khieu Samphan, courteous and multilingual, was the nominal leader and presentable face of the Khmer Rouge and a member of its narrow inner circle. During the judicial process, Khieu Samphan insisted that “was not aware of the heinous acts committed by other leaders”.

Cambodian survivor of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, Chum Mey, speaks to the media after the verdict.  AFP Photo

Cambodian survivor of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, Chum Mey, speaks to the media after the verdict. AFP Photo

Delayed by war and politics, the court, run jointly by the United Nations and the Cambodian government, was not formally established until 2006, more than a quarter-century after a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge from power. (The group continued for years as a guerrilla insurgency.)

The uneasy marriage of two court systems and two often conflicting views of the court’s purpose led to delays and sometimes acrimonious disputes. In addition to being criticized for its high cost and slow pace, the court was mired in corruption and succumbed to pressure from Prime Minister Hun Senhimself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, to limit the scope of the trials.

All of those problems were predictable, said Alexander Hinton, a Rutgers University anthropology professor who has followed the court and testified before it as an expert witness. However, he said, it would have been unacceptable not to prosecute the perpetrators of what he called “some of the worst crimes in history.”

“Personally, I always had very low expectations about what was going to happenand those expectations have been met,” Hinton said in an interview.

But he pointed out that the court had brought to light a time that many older Cambodians would have preferred to forget and the reality of which many young people find it hard to believe.

Up to three quarters of the current population of Cambodia is under 30 years oldand many Khmer Rouge survivors have said their children and grandchildren dismiss their stories about the time as exaggerated and impossible.

The Khmer Rouge evacuated entire cities, including the sick from hospitals, and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the fields on foot; created a national system of forced labor camps, torture centers and places of execution, known as extermination camps; they banned religion and commerce; they separated families and executed people considered part of the old order, in some cases simply because they wore glasses.

It was only in the last decade that Cambodian schools began teaching students about the Khmer Rouge perioddriven in part by the existence of the court.

The future

Youk Chhang, a survivor who runs the Cambodia Documentation Center, which provided much of the material used by the court, said it was up to the young generation to learn from the past and work for “a more optimistic future.”

In fact, the main achievement of the court was the creation, through meticulous investigation and court testimony, of “an empirical record that can never be corrected or questioned”said Peter Maguire, a war crimes expert and author of Facing Death in Cambodia, in an email.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Stephen Mathias.  AFP photo

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Stephen Mathias. AFP photo

One of its main shortcomings, he said, was the small number of people it prosecuted, in part because Hun Sen, the prime minister, feared the trials would spiral out of control and cause political problems for his government.

Only five people were prosecuted, two of whom died before being tried. Some of the most important perpetrators died before charges could be brought against them, chief among them Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan unsuccessfully appealed a 2014 conviction for murder and other crimes. In that case, he received a life sentence, which would have remained in effect regardless of the outcome of his hearing on Thursday.

His co-defendant, Nuon Chea, often known as Pol Pot’s Brother Number Two, was also found guilty in both trials and sentenced to life in prison. He died at the age of 93, less than a year after they were both convicted of genocide in 2018.

The third person sentenced by the court was Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the commandant of the Khmer Rouge central prison in Phnom Penh. Thousands of people were tortured there before being taken to a death camp outside the city and executed. He was sentenced in 2012 to life in prison for crimes against humanity and died in 2020 at the age of 77.

Although Thursday’s hearing marked the end of the court’s active process, it will not spell the end of the court itself, said Craig Etcheson, an expert on this trial and a former visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

now it comes a “legacy period” of three years, during which donor governments may decide to fund public outreach projects, support for victims who participated in the trial, archival preservation, and analysis of the court’s jurisprudence.

“It’s not over yet,” said Youk Chhang of the Cambodia Documentation Center. “We have at least 5 million survivors – a third of the population – who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and whose stories have not been heard or documented.”

One of them is a 66-year-old man named Nak, for whom the entire judicial process was nothing more than a political exercise. He did not want to give his full name because he still fears retaliation for speaking his mind.

“People are already dead,” he said. “The trial means nothing to them. It is a waste of money to go through with the trial.”

New York Times


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