August 7, 2014 10:35 pm JST

UN tribunal serves justice cold to Khmer Rouge leaders

MICHAEL SAINSBURY, Contributing writer

PHNOM PENH -- The two most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders from Cambodia's genocidal Democratic Kampuchea regime have belatedly been sentenced to life imprisonment by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a tribunal organized by the United Nations. 

     Nuon Chea, 88, "Brother Number 2" and the chief ideologue in the secretive Khmer Rouge hierarchy, and Khieu Samphan, 83, Democratic Kampuchea's former head of state, face further charges of genocide for their role in the brutal regime which from 1975 to 1979 sent an estimated 1.8 to 2 million people -- over a fifth of the Cambodian population -- to their deaths from execution, starvation, medical neglect or overwork. 

     The two old men were found guilty of "extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity,'' Judge Nil Nonn pronounced in today's verdict.

     Victims outside the purpose-built court in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, seemed pleased to see justice of some kind delivered from a protracted process that most observers view as flawed and long overdue.

     Two foreign judges have resigned during the tribunal process, citing interference from the Cambodian government, which itself contains Khmer Rouge veterans -- as do the military, police and civil service.

     "There's a satisfaction knowing that these people will never be released," said Youk Chhang, the director of a US-established documentation centre that has been investigating Cambodia's genocide since the 1990s.

     "They lost their freedom," he said today of the convicted former leaders. Youk Chhang was himself among the entire population of Phnom Penh brutally evacuated into the countryside in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge's revolutionary "Year Zero."

     The future of the ECCC and the likelihood of further prosecutions are in doubt. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge field commander who defected to Vietnam in 1977, has always been against trials for lower level Khmer Rouge and ordinary cadres, many of whom were extremely young at the time. The opposition and other observers have meanwhile long been dismissive of the tribunal on the grounds of its selectivity in processing only a small number of the culpable.

     The convictions are only the second and third in a lengthy and politically fraught process that got under way formally in 2005 and has so far cost more than $206 million in funding from the UN and 35 donor countries.

     The earlier ECCC verdict was handed down in 2011 in a life sentence for Kaing Guek Eav, "Comrade Duch", the commandant of S-21, the Khmer Rouge's main interrogation and detention centre in Phnom Penh, housed at Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was converted into a genocide museum in the 1980s. 

     "Both verdicts are milestones," David Scheffer, the UN secretary general's special expert on assistance to the Khmer Rouge trials told Nikkei Asian Review of Duch's 2011 sentence and today's. "I am not going to weigh one against the other. Each is extremely significant in rendering the truth and achieving justice." 

     Duch, who later converted to Christianity and worked with Western aid agencies along the Thai-Cambodian border, was convicted under the weight of overwhelming evidence, including from his deputy, Mam Nay, who was not charged despite implicating himself  in torture and murder while testifying.

     In 2010, Hun Sen told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon that he would not allow prosecutions in the ECCC beyond those already in progress. There are two cases pending and five more accused whose identities have not been disclosed.

     The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Sam Rainsy, which has only recently reached an agreement enabling it to take its 13 seats in parliament, also does not appear to support further indictments.

     In an interview with Nikkei Asian Review, Sam Rainsy, leader of the NCRP dismissed the trial process as a "waste of time and money."

    "If the government was serious about investigating the crimes of the Khmer Rouge it would expose too many members of the current regime who were involved," he said. "This why they have resisted the investigations and made sure things have been slowed down." 

     Hun Sen, 67, who was himself a member of the Khmer Rouge, fled the country in 1977 for Vietnam ahead of paranoid purges of cadres in eastern Cambodia. Hun Sen returned with invading Vietnamese and renegade Khmer Rouge forces on Christmas Day 1978, and helped push Pol Pot's army all the way to the Thai border in a fortnight.

     Apart from the lack of political appetite in Cambodia to continue proceedings against surviving Khmer Rouge, time has already taken a major toll on its leadership.

     Pol Pot, the Maoist revolutionary who as Saloth Sar studied electrical engineering in Paris in the 1950s, headed the Khmer Rouge and died suddenly along the Thai-Cambodian border in 1998. His minister of defence, Son Sen, had already been murdered along with his entire family in bitter internal feuding among Khmer Rouge remants.

     Pol Pot's two bloodiest generals, Ta Mok and Ke Pauk, both died before they could be prosecuted.  The trial of Pol Pot's brother in law Ieng Sary, who was the regime's foreign minister, began in 2011 and ended two years later with his death from multiple ailments. 

     Ieng Sary's wife, Ieng Thirith, Democratic Kampuchea's minister of social affairs, was finally released from trial in 2012 after being deemed mentally unfit. 

     Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the two surviving octogenarian defendants from 2011 convicted today, are both in poor health. Both had pleaded not guilty, and their lawyers say they will appeal. They will remain in custody due to the severity of the crimes they are charged with.

     "The court's future is in the hands of the court itself and the court merits the support of the government and the international community," the UN's Sheffer told Nikkei Asian Review. "Our job is to enable the court to fulfil its mandate in accordance with its constitutional authority. I am confident that the court is on the right path with the work before it."

     Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister since 1985, has always placed national reconciliation ahead of making former Khmer Rouge answer for their crimes. Cambodia first requested assistance from the United Nations to create a tribunal in 1997, but there followed much haggling on its composition. At one stage, the UN pulled out of the process before an agreement was reached in 2003 for a tribunal in Phnom Penh with both foreign and Cambodian judges.

     Even then, the court did not sit until 2005, three decades after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. In a show trial following the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 that was never recognized in the West, both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were sentenced to death in absentia. 

Additional reporting Joe Freeman

 

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