Global Policy Forum

Khmer Rouge Victims Demand Day in Court


By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Inter Press Service
July 4, 2006

As Cambodia crossed another milestone in the long and troublesome journey to create a war crimes tribunal to try the leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the survivors of that brutal period are raising a cry for complete transparency during the trial.

This desire for ''an open process'' is more important than the indictments that may be served at the end of the trial, says one of this South-east Asian country's leading crusaders for justice on behalf of the Khmer Rouge victims. ''This trial is all about the victims. The victims must be heard.'' ''The court must be open and transparent and the public from all sides of Cambodian society must be given access to the proceedings. The need for the victims to hear and tell of their suffering must be protected,'' Youk Chhang, director of the Phnom Penh-based Documentation Centre of Cambodia, told IPS. ''The whole process is more important than indictments. We do not want to be victimised, again, by the process.''

Chhang talks with an authority gained through eleven years of gathering evidence on Khmer Rouge atrocities. His organisation has accumulated gruesome details from some 20,000 mass graves, 189 prisons and 30,000 victim interviews. This material will be made accessible to the prosecutors at the tribunal. For the moment, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has assured the Cambodian people of an open tribunal. ''The trial will be accessible to the public. There will be buses provided from the city and from some provincial towns to the court's site,'' Helen Jarvis, chief of public affairs for the war crimes tribunal, said in an interview. ''Offering such public access is one of the reasons why the government insisted on the tribunal being held in Cambodia and not elsewhere.''

Concerns for a transparent judicial process come as the international and local judges who will preside at the tribunal -- the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia -- were sworn in, Monday, at a special ceremony at the royal palace in Phnom Penh. Jul. 10, will see the first formal working day of the co-prosecutors appointed for this U.N.-backed special court. Cambodian survivors of Khmer Rouge brutality will have to wait till mid-2007 for the doors to the court to be opened and the trial for the crimes against humanity to get underway. It is a delay that might appear marginal when set against the many disputes that came in the way of creating this special tribunal. It was in 1997 that the Cambodian government of Hun Sen asked the United Nations to help set up this tribunal -- but this quest was soon overshadowed by disputes such as the composition of international and local jurists.

The final deal struck between the U.N. and the administration - with 13 international jurists and 17 Cambodian judges - sets this war crimes tribunal apart from other tribunals that looked into similar human rights violations in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In the case of the two, the tribunals had only international jurists to ensure high standards of justice. Such disputes, however, have not dampened the sense of relief being expressed since it is coming over three decades after the Khmer Rouge brutalities were committed, a delay not seen in the case of Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals. ''Given how long it has taken to get off the ground - the on-again, off-again talks dragged out over nine years -- this tribunal's very existence is a cause for celebrations,'' writes Dina Nay, a survivor and head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, in a recent commentary published in Thailand's 'The Nation' newspaper. ''The Extraordinary Chambers marks a milestone in Cambodia's efforts to come to terms with an exceptionally violent period in its past.''

The Maoist Khmer Rouge regime killed close to 1.7 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the country's population at the time, during its reign of terror from 1975-79. The victims were either executed or died due to forced labour or starvation from famines. Pol Pot, the leader of this government that wanted to turn the country into an agrarian paradise, died in 1998. But of the other leaders who have survived, only five to ten of them are expected to be hauled up before the tribunal. They include Ta Mok, the one-legged military chief better known as 'The Butcher', and Kaing Khek Lev, or 'Duch', who headed the Toul Sleng interrogation centre in Phnom Penh, where 14,000 people accused of being traitors died and only 12 inmates survived.

This week, Cambodians were given a stark reminder that these ageing perpetrators of the genocide may, after all, evade the justice that awaits them. The 82-year-old Ta Mok, who has been held in jail, was hospitalised over the weekend for a combination of ailments, including high blood pressure and stomach pain. But Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's deputy who has been implicated in mass killings, offered a hint that Cambodian people may learn what happened during that four-year reign of terror. ''I will be glad to go (before the tribunal), so that people in my country and other countries will know the truth,'' Nuon Chea was quoted as having told the Associated Press on Monday. ''Whatever they ask, I will tell them,'' added the man who was known as 'Brother Number Two' by the Khmer Rouge and who has been enjoying a life of freedom since Hun Sen gave him amnesty in December 1998.

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