Global Policy Forum

Time for Long-Awaited Trials


By Dr Abdullah Al Madani

Gulf News
April 10, 2005

As the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) rapidly moves to bring Sudanese individuals suspected of crimes against humanity in Darfur before the Hague-based International Court, special tribunals set up to prosecute others for genocide from different times and places are getting ready to conduct trials.

A long-awaited war crimes tribunal to prosecute surviving members of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime could start soon. Phnom Penh's ratification of the tribunal agreement last month and the UN's recent success in finding funds for the tribunal marked a major step forward in beginning the work. The prosecution has a projected budget of nearly $70 million (Dh258 million), half of which Tokyo pledged to cover. It is said that the Japanese pledge is part of Tokyo's effort to secure a seat on a reconfigured UN Security Council.

In Iraq, former president Saddam Hussain and many high-ranking officials from the ousted Baath regime are expected to face justice in the next few months. Should the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders take place before that of Saddam and his colleagues, the Iraqis would need to watch it carefully and learn from it.

Crimes committed by both the Saddam and Khmer Rouge regimes are similar. At least this is what hundreds of communal graves in Iraq and piles of human skulls in Cambodia point to. Moreover, the trials of both groups are to be held at the scene of crimes and conducted by special tribunals comprising local or local and foreign judges. This is unlike the prosecutions of Rwanda and former Yugoslavia's war criminals which were handled by international tribunals in The Hague.

The establishment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which has been under discussion for more than five years, is good news for millions of Cambodians who have long feared that none of their former savage leaders would be prosecuted. It is also an additional indication that justice can eventually be done and that all tyrants and war criminals will one day have to stand trial.

The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot seized power in Cambodia in 1975. Seeking to create a utopian society, the group abolished private property and money, and emptied the cities by driving the urban population into the countryside to live and work in communal camps. During its five-year reign of terror, ended with the Vietnamese invasion of the country in 1979, approximately two million Cambodians or one quarter of the population died of disease, starvation, overwork, or execution.

Guerrilla war

Following its loss of power, the Khmer Rouge waged a guerrilla war for the next two decades. Like in post-Saddam Iraq, the war was launched in the name of liberating the country from foreign occupation, something that made many turn a blind eye to the group's ugly past and view it as a legitimate representative of Cambodia.

This included the West, whose priority then, according to cold war politics, was to stop the Soviets and their Vietnamese ally from expanding their influence in Asia, rather than targeting the Khmer Rouge for genocidal acts. It also includes China, the Khmer Rouge's longstanding ally. This, in addition to China's longstanding support to the group, was one of the factors that have delayed the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders for so long.

Another factor was the current Cambodian Government's unwillingness to cooperate with the UN or its insistence on a tribunal controlled by Cambodian judges. It has been said that by such tactics Prime Minister Hun Sen and political allies wanted to escape any possible inquiries about their roles during the Khmer Rouge rule. Many figures in the current ruling regime had been members of the Khmer Rouge before they fled Cambodia for Vietnam in 1977 and 1978 in fear of Pol Pot's paranoid purges of his own apparatus.

Eventually a complex compromise formula was agreed upon between Phnom Penh and the UN. According to it, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is made up of three Cambodian and two international judges, cases are decided by a majority, the vote of at least one international judge is required for decisions, and the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. The agreement was criticised by many analysts, legal experts and human rights organisations for several reasons. One pertains to the capability of Cambodia to hold a fair and impartial trial.

Another reason pertains to the numerical scale of the investigation and indictments. Under the current tribunal agreement, only a handful of top Khmer Rouge leaders will be indicted. The most prominent is former army chief Ta Mok, 80, better known as the "Butcher", who is currently in detention. This will allow lower-ranking leaders who were also involved in serious crimes to escape justice. As a result of an amnesty programme, many of these killers have managed to enter the ranks of the government and armed forces and live normal lives among their victims.

What may annoy Cambodians more is that three senior Khmer Rouge figures will not be prosecuted. This includes Head of State Khieu Samphan, Prime Minister Nuon Chea, known as "Brother Number Two", and Foreign Minister Iang Sary. With the plea to bury the past, Hun Sen conducted a deal with these figures in 1999 after they defected from the Khmer Rouge. Since then the three men have been living freely in the autonomous zone of Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in the west along the Thailand border. It was Pailin's rich resources of gemstones and teak wood that paid for the arms that kept the group fighting for 20 years.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Tribunal for Cambodia
More Information on the Iraq Tribunal
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


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