The long and often fraught proceedings of the court set up to try the leaders of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge at last came to a head this week on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The two remaining survivors from the regime’s leadership, 87-year-old Nuon Chea and 82-year-old Khieu Samphan, made their closing statements before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, to give the tribunal its full title.
It was only the second trial, and probably the last. A public gallery of Buddhist monks, Islamic clergy, local schoolgirls and foreign journalists looked on.
Nuon Chea was the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and "Brother Number Two" to Pol Pot, who died — untried — in 1998. Khieu Samphan was the head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge styled its totalitarian Cambodia. They are both accused of crimes against humanity and genocide. This part of their trial concerns the first charge, relating to the forced evacuation of the capital in 1975. No date has been set to hear the genocide charges.
Both deny that they had anything much to do with the deaths of a quarter of the population, or about 2 million people, between 1975 and 1979. Slave labor to forge an agrarian Utopia, the torture and extermination of ethnic Vietnamese, Cham Muslims and intellectuals – i.e., anyone who wore glasses – and the systematic murder of babies... All apparently were somebody else’s idea.
Throughout the trial Nuon Chea sported dark glasses and complained that the lights were too bright. A pitiless dogmatist, he once declined to save two nieces from his own regime. Both were doctors and, as educated people, they and their families were duly dispatched to the dreaded Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison, of whose total of 17,000 inmates only a dozen emerged alive.
On Oct. 31 Nuon Chea expressed remorse for the suffering under the Khmer Rouge, but dodged any personal responsibility. He blamed it all on "treacherous" subordinates. Yet an Australian co-prosecutor, William Smith, methodically summed up 212 days of hearings, testimony from 92 people and documentary evidence that included telegrams sent to Pol Pot’s headquarters with daily accounts of the atrocities being committed. It all left little room for doubt that the regime’s leaders knew exactly what was going on.
Sentencing is expected early next year, and the prosecution is demanding life in prison for both aging defendants. Even if it gets its way, however, wider questions about the court’s work and its legacy will remain. The court’s investigations into the crimes began in July 2007 and to date have cost $200 million. The first trial ended in July 2010 with the conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch. The former head of Tuol Sleng, he is the only Khmer Rouge leader to have admitted to crimes.
If these two also go down, the court will have only three convictions to its name. One other defendant, Ieng Sary, died in March, while another, his wife, was ruled mentally unfit to continue. Unsurprisingly many Cambodians question whether justice really has been served, or whether the financial cost, even if underwritten by the West, was worth it.
The court has faced indifference and at times hostility from the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a Khmer Rouge battalion commander until he defected to the Vietnamese in 1977. Vietnam’s subsequent invasion in 1979 ousted Pol Pot, but also helped Hun Sen to power. Other members of the government also were connected to the Khmer Rouge and have never wanted the court to delve too deeply into the past.
All this helps explain why the court limited itself to trying only members of the Khmer Rouge’s standing committee. In 2010 Hun Sen publicly declared his opposition to any more trials, in effect bringing the court’s work to an end.
The court also had to take account of diplomatic complexities. American anxieties about the tribunal were met by restricting its mandate to crimes committed within Cambodian borders, and only while the Khmer Rouge was in power. This had the effect of shielding former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from having to explain his and America’s role in Cambodia’s descent into madness.
For all these reasons, many Cambodians have been cynical about a court shot through with expediency. Furthermore, the proceedings appear to have contributed little to reconciliation. The present political standoff between Hun Sen and the opposition, following a disputed election in July, shows how much more of that is still needed.
Advocates of the court argue that, despite its limitations, it still has done something to comfort the relatives of the Khmer Rouge’s victims. It also has helped Cambodians come to terms with this dreadful episode in their history. More than 100,000 Cambodians have attended the court hearings. Television channels wrap up each week at the tribunal, and programs reuniting families separated by decades of war are popular.
School curriculums now teach the Khmer Rouge era and, as Craig Etcheson, a former chief investigator for the prosecution, points out, parents are no longer afraid to talk to their children about the horrors that took place when the Maoists came to power.
As for the much-criticized cost, Etcheson says that $100 for every person who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge is "not too much to ask."