Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal closed after 16 years

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – An international tribunal has been convened in Cambodia to try the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. It will end its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of the crimes.

In its latest session, the UN-backed tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2018 and sentenced to life in prison, the sentence was confirmed on Thursday.

Read more: A brief history of the Khmer Rouge

He appeared in court Thursday wearing a white windbreaker, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a face mask and listening to the proceedings with headphones. Seven judges were present.

Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state, but denied any real decision-making rights during his legal defense as the Khmer Rouge implemented a reign of terror to create a utopian agrarian society that caused Cambodians to die from execution, starvation and deprivation. medical care. It was ousted from power in 1979 by the invasion of neighboring communist Vietnam.

On January 9, 1975, Cambodian refugee children wait their turn at an aid organization’s feeding station northwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The youth and their families fled the Phnom Baseth area after raids by nearby Khmer Rouge rebels.

Know Kim Heang aka Moonface – AP

“Whatever you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his latest appeal to the court last year. “I will always die remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die seeing that I am alone before you. I will be judged more symbolically than by my actual actions.

In his appeal, he argued that the court made errors of law and interpretation and acted unfairly by objecting to more than 1,800 points.

But the court noted on Thursday that his appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case before the court. He rejected almost all of Khieu Samphan’s arguments, admitting error and reversing his decision on one minor point. The court said it found most of Khieu Samphan’s arguments to be “baseless” and that many were “alternative interpretations of the evidence”.

The court said its multi-hundred-page judgment would be official when it was released and ordered Khieu Samphan to be sent back to the purpose-built prison where he was being held. He was arrested in 2007.

Thursday’s decision makes no practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 years old and is already serving a second life sentence for a 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity related to the forced transfer and disappearance of masses of people.

His co-defendant, Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge leader and No. 2 chief ideologue, was convicted twice and given the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.

Khmer Rouge leaders on a train between Phnom Penh and Sihanouk Ville, Cambodia in 1975.  Pol Pot is on the left side, in the front row;  Nuon Chea is behind him;  and Ieng Sary is in the front row on the right.  (Gamma-Rapho - API/Getty Images)

Khmer Rouge leaders on a train between Phnom Penh and Sihanouk Ville, Cambodia in 1975. Pol Pot is on the left side, in the front row; Nuon Chea is behind him; and Ieng Sary is in the front row on the right.

Gamma-Rapho – API/Getty Images

The tribunal’s only other conviction was Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was the commander of Tuol Sleng Prison, where some 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away for slaughter. Duch was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder and torture in 2010 and died in 2020 aged 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 guerilla war they had begun after losing power.

Read more: 40 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is still grappling with Pol Pot’s brutal legacy

The trials of the other two sole defendants remained unfinished. Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, and her husband, former social minister Ieng Thirith, was found incompetent to stand trial due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.

Four other suspects, middle-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to a split among the tribunal’s lawyers.

In an innovative hybrid arrangement, Cambodian and international lawyers were brought together at every stage, and a majority had to agree for the case to move forward. The court used French-style judicial procedures in which international investigators recommended the four be prosecuted, but Cambodian partners disagreed after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced no further charges, saying they could lead to unrest.

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

Actively operating, the tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is now entering a three-year “residual period” focusing on organizing its archives and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.

Experts who participated in the court’s work or observed its proceedings now reflect on its legacy.

Read more: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge trials are a shocking failure

Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years on the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the tribunal was able to provide some measure of accountability.

“The time, money, and effort involved in achieving this rather limited goal can be disproportionate to the goal,” he said in a video interview from his home in Boulder, Colorado.

But he praised the holding of the trials “in the country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay a certain amount of attention to what was going on in the court and gather information about what was going on in the court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague or The Hague. Some other place.” The World Court and the International Criminal Court are located in The Hague, Netherlands.

Michael Karnavas, an American lawyer 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, did Cambodia’s constitution and established laws guarantee their rights to a fair trial substantively and procedurally regardless of the outcome at the highest international level?” he said in an email interview. “The answer is somewhat confusing.”

“The trial phase was less than I think was fair. The judges improvised too much and despite the length of the proceedings, the defense was not always treated fairly,” said Karnavas, who has also appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal.

“There are many examples of substantive and procedural law where the ECCC not only got it right, but further contributed to the development of international criminal law.”

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

Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa, where mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, about 17 km south of Phnom Penh.  It is the most famous of the sites known as the Killing Fields and is now a memorial marked by a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls of more than 5,000 people.  (Shaul Schwarz – Getty Images)

Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa, where mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, about 17 km south of Phnom Penh. It is the most famous of the sites known as the Killing Fields and is now a memorial marked by a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls of more than 5,000 people.

Shaul Schwarz – Getty Images

“The court successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge and showed that, although it may take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” said Craig Etcheson, who has researched and written. Khmer Rouge and was Head of Prosecution Investigations at the ECCC from 2006 to 2012.

“The Tribunal also created an extraordinary record of these crimes, containing documents that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, that teach Cambodian youth about their country’s history and that profoundly frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.”

Youk Chhang, director of the Cambodia Documentation Center, which houses a vast amount of evidence of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, addressed the underlying question of whether the verdict was fair to just three men.

“Justice is sometimes based on satisfaction, recognition, not the number of people you blame,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a broad definition of justice, but if people are satisfied, if people are satisfied with the process or benefit from the process, then I think we can understand that as justice.”

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