Cambodia: Time The Biggest Obstacle In Khmer Rouge Trial – OpEd


By Rob O’Brien
For the young Cambodians who didn’t grow up under the shadow of the Khmer Rouge final statements last week at the specially convened UN-Cambodian trial of two of the regime’s senior leaders may not have generated much buzz.

“They have no memory of the Khmer Rouge… if there parents get scared over a minor thing, they don’t understand,” says Kounila Keo, a local blogger and writer, who has worked as a court monitor in Phnom Penh’s Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). “Some of us can move on, but for a lot of people the idea of having the court do the work, to bring justice… that’s really important.”

Final statements were heard by 87-year-old Nuon Chea – known as Brother Number Two – and former president Khieu Samphan, 81, both senior members of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for a four-year reign of terror that left more than 2 million dead between 1975-1979.

They are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, including torture, enslavement and murder. Both denied all charges.

Next year will be the eighth anniversary since the ECCC  began its work. This tribunal, known as Case 002/01, is about to mark its second anniversary. Patience among Cambodians is being tested by the complicated process, repeated delays in proceedings, allegations of corruption and funding shortfalls.

“People are thinking that justice is being delayed, there are so many issues – the suspects are getting older and older and there’s less time,” Ms Keo says. “The court has to step up. It has faced so many challenges in the past three or four years… people are less and less confident that full justice will be delivered, especially for victims of the Khmer Rouge.”

The joint U.N.-Cambodian trial has convicted just one member of the Khmer Rouge since it opened in 2006, a life sentence it handed down in 2010 to Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the head of Tuol Sleng S-21 torture centre, where 15,000 people died.

Case 002 has been broken up into a chronological series of ‘mini trials’ focusing initially on the forced evacuation of Cambodia’s urban centres by the Khmer Rouge.

These two defendants are all that’s remaining of the original four accused. Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister, died in March aged 87 and his wife, the social affairs minister, was deemed unfit to stand trial after being diagnosed with dementia.

Heather Ryan, Khmer Rouge Trial Monitor for Open Society Justice Initiative, said that the ECCC couldn’t afford to lose any more defendants and needed to carefully plan the next sections of the trial. She has written a larger report into the tribunal’s planning issues, which you can read here.

“The question is when and if the next trial of those charges against these same accused is going to go forward. The problem with this is that they wanted to get a judgement on some of the claims before all of the accused died, and hopefully they’ll get there,” she said.

“What you don’t want and what is at risk, is that you have so few people that get to the end of the process that you risk hanging the whole Khmer Rouge history and liability on their shoulders, and that’s not very accurate. If one more person dies in this case, you risk narrowing who you say is responsible and that skews the history and the understanding of the impact of the court.”

The court also faces ongoing financial problems and increasing ‘donor fatigue’ with a scaling back of funding for 2014/15 from Japan – the largest single donor country. In September, 250 Cambodian staff striked after they wages weren’t paid, the second such incident this year.

“This is very difficult for the Cambodian staff, they don’t get paid sometimes for three months, four months, five months… ,” said Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for the ECCC. Last minute funding to see the court through until the end of the year was only secured after a meeting last month between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Cambodian President Hun Sen.

Campaigners say there is uncertainty around how many mini trials will be held after the verdict of Case 002 is heard. The tribunal also faces a dilemma on the appeals process, which could take more than a year. Judges in the first trial took a full year to write up their judgement and it is expected to take six months before the ageing Khmer Rouge leaders face a verdict

“While the court is doing very well in terms of outreach the interest is being lost – the accused has gone from four down to two right now and the court is struggling with financial problems, key staff keep resigning and national staff keep striking. It’s quite obvious that the interest in this trial is fading,” said Executive Officer Chy Terith of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM), which has provided more than 700,000 documents to the court.

The ECCC has transported thousands of locals from across the country to attend the trials. Cambodian schools also now have a curriculum which involves the Khmer Rouge period, which Ryan attributes to the tribunal.

“It has created a dialogue between younger people and their parents, there is definitely more openness among generations about talking about the Khmer Rouge period,” she said.

Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia, says the challenge for the tribunal is how to keep the Cambodian population engaged as this trial goes on.

“The reasons it’s important to keep the population engaged is because this is meant to be a cathartic experience, a healing experience… trying to understand what happened and bringing justice to help the Cambodian people move on,” he said.

For many they have seen too many stops and starts. While the closing statements in Case 002/01 is a step forward, it’s still nowhere near the end.

“It’s tiring for some people,” says Ms Keo, “the process has been too long. I worked as a court monitor and listened to proceedings, and I know it takes time, but it’s taking too much time, and this is putting people off.”

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