Global Policy Forum

Tribunal Finally Ready to Probe 'Killing Fields'


By Geoffrey York

Globe and Mail
June 14, 2007

Canadian prosecutor Robert Petit has spent more than a decade on genocide and war-crimes trials for Rwanda, Sierra Leone and East Timor. But never has he experienced a tribunal as precarious as the one he has served for the past year in Cambodia. Mr. Petit, a lawyer from Montreal, is the co-prosecutor on the long-delayed trial to bring justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. And until yesterday, there were serious doubts that the trial would ever happen.

But after a year of internal squabbling, the tribunal in Cambodia is now on the verge of moving ahead with its first arrests and indictments. Yesterday, the tribunal finally agreed on its internal rules. It was a crucial decision, clearing the way for the formal process of taking action against the elderly Khmer Rouge leaders who presided over the slaughter of up to two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.

The trial is expected to begin early next year, but the first indictments are likely to be issued within the next few months. Pol Pot, the fanatical Maoist leader who emptied the cities and executed thousands of teachers and intellectuals in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia, died in 1998. But several other Khmer Rouge leaders are still living freely in Cambodia and could be indicted. Only one is in custody so far.

Until yesterday, a series of wrangles over legal fees and administrative procedures had stoked tensions and provoked threats of a walkout by some of the international judges on the tribunal. The tribunal is a unique blend of Cambodian and international justice, and the hybrid was plagued with disputes.

"This is my fourth tribunal and I've got to say that this is probably the most precarious," Mr. Petit said in a telephone interview from Phnom Penh yesterday. "All of us, the internationals, came here to help our Cambodian colleagues to deliver a measure of justice for their country and their people. With these new rules, hopefully we're going to be able to do that. We're all very much relieved. Now there's the pressure of getting on with it and doing it the right way."

The vast majority of Cambodians, he said, are still searching for answers about the "killing fields" of the Khmer Rouge era. Unlike most other wars or genocides, this was not about a territorial dispute, a religious conflict, a foreign invasion or an imperial struggle. This was Cambodians killing their fellow Cambodians on a massive scale - and the country wants the tribunal to explain it.

"A huge percentage of people here are under the age of 30, because of what happened in the 1970s, and the vast majority just want to know why it happened," Mr. Petit said. "They want to know what happened - hopefully from the mouths of some of the perpetrators themselves. Why did they kill and why did they keep on killing? There's been a lack of formal education by the government about that period. Courts are not the best way of providing that knowledge, but we are seen as the best option at this point. So we're going to have to make a big effort to answer that need."

With the help of the United Nations, the tribunal has a budget for three years of work. Canada is providing $1.7-million to help pay for the $56-million cost of the trial. But because of the administrative disputes, a year has already been expended - and another year could pass before the trial finally begins. Some analysts believe that the Cambodian government - and its allies in China -- have been trying to sabotage or limit the tribunal's independence, perhaps because of fears that the trial will provide embarrassing revelations about the links between the Khmer Rouge and members of the current government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Mr. Petit will not comment on these allegations, except to say that the Cambodian government has not interfered with his own work. He says there is a simple motivation for his battle to seek justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. "If it's worth prosecuting a person who killed his neighbour, it's certainly worth prosecuting those who masterminded the killing of thousands or tens of thousands of their compatriots. "These are the worst crimes, so we're dealing with the worst perpetrators and the most victimized people. This is a chance for me to have significant input into how these crimes are accounted for, and how the victims get some justice. To me, this is the best job I could do. It's a privilege."

Coming to Power

The Communist Khmer Rouge began an insurgency against government forces in 1970, gaining control of most of the country. In 1975, the movement, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the government, establishing Democratic Kampuchea and carrying out a radical agrarian revolution, in which as many as 1.5 million died. In 1979, Vietnamese troops invaded, aiding a rival Communist faction to depose the Khmer Rouge government. All Cambodian factions signed a treaty in 1991, calling for United Nations-supervised elections and disarming 70 per cent of all forces. But the Khmer Rouge rejected the results of the election. Factional fighting within the Khmer Rouge in 1997 led to Pol Pot's ouster, and the group continued to disintegrate.

Top Suspects

Ieng Sary, 76: The foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge regime. There is evidence that he publicly encouraged arrests and executions, and allowed foreign ministry officials to be sent to the S-21 torture centre. Today he lives in a lavish 12-room mansion in Phnom Penh, under police protection, with his wealth acquired from smuggling gems and logs. He travels in a chauffeured Toyota Land Cruiser. In spite of that, he is one of the Khmer leaders thought most likely to face the court.

Khieu Samphan, 74: The president of Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge regime. He is believed to have known about the atrocities, although he has denied it, and to have contributed to the genocide by supporting the regime. Today he lives freely in the town of Pailin, in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of northwestern Cambodia. He could be indicted.

Nuon Chea, 79: Known as Brother No. 2, behind only Pol Pot, who was Brother No. 1, he was the leading ideologue of the Khmer Rouge and is believed to have played a key role in devising and implementing its execution policies. Today, he lives freely in northwestern Cambodia, where he is a neighbour of Khieu Samphan. He once told a reporter that he does not shed any tears or lose any sleep over the activities of the Khmer Rouge. He is also a candidate for indictment.

Kaing Khek Ieu, 63: Known as Duch, he was commandant of the infamous S-21 torture and interrogation prison in Phnom Penh. His signature is on many of the prison's documents, and he is known to have played a direct role in supervising the prison's activities. Later he became a born-again evangelical Christian. He has been in military custody since 1999.

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