Global Policy Forum

Justice Catches Up with the Khmer Rouge


By Jan McGirk

May 5, 2006

A long-stalled war crimes trial for Khmer Rouge leaders, accused of causing nearly one third of Cambodia's population to perish on the Killing Fields, drew a step closer after an international panel of 30 judges and prosecutors was appointed in Phnom Penh yesterday. King Norodom Sihamoni, himself held captive by Khmer revolutionaries as a boy, chaired the Supreme Council of Magistracy which picked the new legal team from United Nations and Cambodian nominees.

The tribunal is not expected to start until early 2007, but paperwork begins next month, more than 31 years after Pol Pot emptied the cities at gunpoint and forced the calendar back to "Year Zero" to install a totalitarian Maoist regime that banned education, religion and money.

At least 1,700,000 Cambodians were murdered, tortured or starved to death between 1975 and 1979. Others died from forced labour or untreated diseases. The mass graves contain bones from almost every family in the country.

Under Cambodian law, prosecuting judges investigate for up to 18 months before a case goes to trial. But detailed records of Khmer Rouge atrocities already have been catalogued. Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said: "The trial will set a very solid foundation to build rule of law in Cambodia."

The Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said magistrates from the United States, the Netherlands, Poland, France, Australia and Sri Lanka would serve with 13 Cambodian justices. He addressed concerns that, because the Khmer Rouge exterminated an entire generation of intellectuals, relatively youthful local justices schooled in East Germany or the Soviet Union may prove incompetent. "In terms of dealing with domestic crime, they are capable of doing their job," he said.

State-sponsored atrocities were relentless. Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Pol Pot was shot or bludgeoned with an axe. Stakes were driven through the backs of nearsighted citizens who had presumably ruined their vision through reading bourgeois books.

Most of the top echelon of present leaders, including long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, survived the brutal 1970s by joining the Khmer Rouge, but not one is expected to face trial. To avert political pressures on the tribunal, the judges must follow a complex formula which requires any verdict to be supported by both local and international jurists.

Impoverished Cambodia initially agreed to pay $13.3m (£7.1m) towards the $56m trial, then appealed to foreign donors for more aid. Aside from the UN, Japan is the main donor. Political analysts say the Japanese may be keen to highlight the extent of China's support for Pol Pot, and some worry China may be planning economic obstacles to further stall this tribunal.

Pol Pot died of a heart attack in 1998, hiding in a jungle camp near the Thai border. Only two of his cadres are behind bars: Duch, who tormented 20,000 people in the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre, and Chhit Choeun, alias Ta Mok, the one-legged army chief nicknamed "The Butcher".

At least three senior Khmer Rouge leaders are free inside Cambodia: Pol Pot's "brother number two", Nuon Chea; the former head of state Khieu Samphan; and former foreign minister Leng Sary.

Five who face tribunals:

Ieng Sary

The Vietnamese-born foreign minister from 1976-78 later commanded a vast western stronghold rich in gems and timber. After Sary's defection in 1996, King Norodom Sihanouk pardoned him from a death sentence. Still influential.

Nuon Chea

Also known as Brother Number Two. Pol Pot's chief lieutenant, but retired with his wife to a cottage. A surrender pact with Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1998 spared him from prosecution.

Khieu Samphan

Khmer head of state from 1976-79, then led a rebel government. Succeeded Pol Pot as leader of the Khmer Rouge in 1985. Surrendered to the Cambodian government in 1998. The Paris-trained economist was a brother in-law of Pol Pot and Leng Sary.

Chhit Choeun

Also known as Ta Mok, the one-legged former army chief was called "The Butcher" after the massacre of 30,000 in Angkor Chey. Until his arrest in 1999, "Uncle Mok" made lucrative deals with Thai businessmen. Has been awaiting trial since 1999.

Kang Khek Ieu

Better known as Duch, the former maths teacher ran an interrogation centre in Phnom Penh. Converted a school into a torture chamber. One execution order sent 17 children to their deaths for not turning their parents in to authorities. Awaiting trial since 1999.

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


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