Pol Pot’s surviving lieutenants are about to get their day in court. But will a much-criticized process be able to bring Cambodians the justice they’re searching for?
Almost 33 years after Pol Pot was driven from power by invading Vietnamese, his surviving lieutenants are about to see their day in court. Prosecutor Andrew Cayley is confident enough evidence exists to secure a conviction, while the defense teams have signaled that each of the accused are likely to adopt their own strategy in fending off charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
“This is the trial the Cambodian people have been waiting for, where those alleged to be the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge will stand trial accused of having made decisions and devised policies that led to crimes throughout Cambodia,” says tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen.
Securing justice for the 1.7 million to 2.2 million people who died, and the millions more lucky enough to survive the Khmer Rouge, has been a huge undertaking. Khmer culture was obliterated under the ultra-Maoists. Money was abandoned and cities emptied as millions were marched into the countryside to work as slave labor.
Hundreds of thousands were also condemned to death because they didn’t fit Pol Pot’s vision of a pure “Angkorian” society. In the death camps, women were mutilated, their babies taken and killed. Electric shock and water torture were common.
“We hope the start of the trial will further strengthen support for the trial proceedings among ordinary Cambodians,” Olsen says from the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC).
After a slow start, interest in the tribunal has risen sharply. Since the first trial was launched in March 2009, more than 100,000 Cambodians have visited the courts. The initial hearings have rated well on government TV, and Olsen says he expects the 500-seat court room will be filled every day the tribunal sits. Meanwhile, the largest commercial TV network in the country is planning to broadcast Case 002 live.
“This clearly illustrates that there is great interest in the trial,” he adds.
While local interest has vindicated the initial decision to proceed with the trial, the tribunal has still had its share of foreign detractors.
Ever since its inception – which began with a call for help by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to the United Nations more than a decade ago – the line-up of critics has ballooned.
The loudest have been Western lawyers, NGOs and human rights groups, alongside expatriate Khmers and relatives of non-Cambodian victims who ventured in once the tribunal began in earnest with Case 001, the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who ran the S-21 extermination camp.
It was here that intellectuals were classified as such simply because they wore glasses. Prisoners were kept alive long enough to have their blood drawn for use in field hospitals. Others were chained to beds and decapitated. At Choeung Ek, prisoners dug their own shallow graves, were bludgeoned with an ox cart axle, had their throats slit and bodies dumped.
Few of the tribunal’s critics had much do with Cambodia before Case 001 got underway, yet they often insist they know best for a tribunal dedicated to establishing responsibility for an extraordinary slaughter that took place over a period of less than four years amid a war that lasted more than three decades.
Much of the frustration centers on Cases 003 and 004. The Open Society Justice Initiative, funded by Wall Street financier George Soros, is one disappointed observer, and wants the United Nations to establish an inquiry into allegations of judicial misconduct involving another five Khmer Rouge figures.
It says the United Nations must act if it’s to “salvage the reputation” of the tribunal “as a credible judicial institution.” Some have claimed Hun Sen’s government has interfered with due process, others say some NGOs are using the ECCC to grandstand and for self-promotion.
Photo Credit: Sean Hoyland