PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — An international tribunal convened in Cambodia to try the Khmer Rouge regime’s atrocities that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s will end its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men. crimes.
In its latest session, the UN-backed tribunal began ruling on 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.
He appeared in court in a white windbreaker, 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.
“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 symbolically rather than by my actual actions as an individual.”
In his appeal, he argued that the court made errors in legal proceedings and interpretation and acted unfairly. But the court noted on Thursday that his appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case before the court. He ruled point by point on the arguments raised by Khieu Samphan, rejecting almost all of them and saying that the final decision of several hundred pages would be official when it was published.
A mixed record of convictions
The final decision changes practically nothing. 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.
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.
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. According to the French-style judicial procedures used by the court, international investigators recommended that the four be prosecuted, but local partners disagreed after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced no further charges would be brought, 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.
The focus is on educating the work of the tribunal
With its active work, the tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is now in 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.
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 trials being held “in the country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay a certain amount of attention 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 some other place.” The World Court and the International Criminal Court are located in The Hague, Netherlands.
Evaluation of the Tribunal’s legacy
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, regardless of the outcome, were their rights to a fair trial guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution and established law at the highest international level, substantively and procedurally?” he said in an email interview. “The answer is somewhat confusing.”
“The trial stage was less than I consider fair. There was too much improvisation by the judges, and despite the length of the proceedings, the defense was not always treated fairly,” said Karnavas, who has also appeared before the International Criminal Court. The Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court for Rwanda.
“In terms of substantive and procedural law, there are many examples where the EKCC not only got things right, but further contributed to the development of international criminal law.”
There is consensus that the tribunal’s legacy extends beyond the statute books.
“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 produced an extraordinary record of these crimes, containing documents that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, and which will teach Cambodian youth about their country’s history and profoundly frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes committed by 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 think of that as justice.”