Global Policy Forum

Cambodian Court Fights Time in Trying Aging Khmer Rouge Leaders


By Daniel Ten Kate

August 5, 2008

Two of five Khmer Rouge leaders accused of genocide in the 1970s have been hospitalized in the past three months, raising questions about bringing them to justice in a United Nations-backed court before they die.

Former head of state Khieu Samphan, 77, was treated in May for a minor stroke and returned back to jail a few weeks later. Last week, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, 82, entered the hospital after doctors discovered blood in his urine during a routine checkup.

``If one of the leaders dies before the trial takes place, the public will judge the tribunal as a complete failure,'' said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has collected more than 650,000 papers and 6,000 photographs from 1975 to 1979, when one in five Cambodians died through starvation, disease or execution during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

The health of the five leaders has created tension between a court aiming to uphold international standards of justice and the public's expectation of swift guilty verdicts. The use of civil law for the first time in an international genocide tribunal may further disappoint those who expect dramatic courtroom moments because most of the testimony takes place behind closed doors.

``There are certainly growing expectations among the Cambodian public that every single victim will have the chance to come and tell their full story, lift the weight from their shoulders,'' said Peter Foster, a spokesman for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. ``If we follow the law, it will only be a very few that will actually be able to come forward and testify, and in many cases most of that won't even be public.''

`Pretty Quickly'

The process has progressed ``pretty quickly'' since the tribunal started operating in 2006, Foster said. Cambodia was mired in civil war in the 1980s, and it took almost a decade of negotiations between the government and the UN before the court was created. During that time, two Khmer Rouge leaders died: Pol Pot, who headed the regime, and Ta Mok, the military chief.

The other defendants facing trial are Ieng Thirith, the 76- year-old wife of Ieng Sary, and Nuon Chea, 82, Pol Pot's second in command. The youngest among the five, Kang Kek Ieu, 65, will likely be the first to go on trial later this year. Also known as Duch, he oversaw Tuol Sleng prison, a converted elementary school where as many as 20,000 people were tortured and thousands killed.

Mixed Views

On Cambodia's streets, views about the tribunal are mixed. Tu Pothea, whose father was killed during Khmer Rouge rule, said the trial wasn't a ``big deal.''

``Everyone knows they committed the crime, so why do they need to try them now?'' she said from her roadside drink stand in the capital, Phnom Penh. Those sentiments were echoed by Khieu Kanharith, the government's spokesman. ``People in France and the U.S. try to teach us to think that we need the trial to deal with the past,'' he said. ``We are a Buddhist society. We want a blank page in our history.''

Others say that decades of entrenched fear have caused many victims to bottle up their emotions. ``People are interested in this court but they don't want to show it openly as they are still concerned about their safety,'' said Chum Mey, one of three known living survivors of Tuol Sleng prison. Chum Mey, 78, was tortured by electric shocks and had his toenails ripped out with scissors while in prison. He said the sight of his former tormentor on trial helped to ``satisfy my longtime dream.''

More than 10,000 people have visited the courtroom and participated in group question-and-answer sessions, Foster said. Once one audience member asks a question and tells a story, ``they all want to come forward,'' he added. ``There is no point in telling a story about such a horrible thing with all the emotion and stress that it would cause if it's going to be for nothing,'' said Foster.

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