Khmer Rouge tribunal ends work after 16 years, 3 judgments : NPR
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — An international tribunal convened in Cambodia to try Khmer Rouge regime brutalities that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s wraps up Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes.
In what was to be its final session, the UN-assisted tribunal began to issue its decision on an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving head of the Khmer Rouge government who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He said was convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
He appeared in court in a white windbreaker, wearing a face mask and listening to the proceedings on a pair of headphones. Seven judges were present.
Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his defense at trial, denied having any real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge used a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, causing the death of Cambodians by execution , starvation and insufficient medical care. He was ousted from power in 1979 by an invasion of the neighboring communist state, Vietnam.
“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his final appeal statement to the court last year. “I will always die remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die seeing that I am alone before you. I am judged symbolically rather than by my actual acts as an individual.”
In his appeal, he alleged that the court erred in legal procedures and interpretation and acted unfairly. But the court noted on Thursday that his appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case as presented in court. He ruled point by point on the arguments raised by Khieu Samphan, rejecting almost all of them and saying that his final judgment of several hundred pages would be official when published.
A mixed record of convictions
The final decision makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 and is already serving another life sentence for his 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity related to forcible transfers and mass disappearances of people.
His co-defendant Nuon Chea, leader No. 2 and chief ideologist of the Khmer Rouge, was convicted twice and sentenced to the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.
The only other court conviction was that of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where around 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Duch was convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity, murder and torture and died in 2020 at age 77 while serving a life sentence.
The real leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped justice. He died in the jungle in 1998 aged 72 as remnants of his movement fought their last battles in the guerrilla warfare they launched after losing power.
The trials of the only two other defendants have not been completed. Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, and his wife, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, was found unfit to stand trial for insanity in 2011 and died in 2015.
Four other suspects, mid-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to a split among the court’s jurists.
In an innovative hybrid arrangement, Cambodian and international lawyers were paired up at each stage, and a majority had to give their assent for a case to move forward. Under French-style legal proceedings used by the tribunal, international investigators recommended that the four be tried, but local partners disagreed after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would not there would be more lawsuits, claiming they could cause unrest.
Hun Sen himself was a mid-ranking commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party share a similar background. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.
Emphasis is placed on raising awareness of the work of the court
Having completed its active work, the court, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is now entering a “residual” period of three years, focusing on putting its records in order and disseminating information on his work for educational purposes.
Experts who have taken part in the work of the Court or followed its debates are now wondering about its legacy.
Heather Ryan, who has spent 15 years following the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the tribunal has been successful in ensuring some level of accountability.
“The time, money and effort required to achieve this rather limited goal may be disproportionate to the objective,” she said in a video interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado.
But she praised herself for having organized the trials “in the country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay a certain level of attention and gather information about what was happening in court in a much more greater extent than if the tribunal had been in The Hague or some other place.” The Hague in the Netherlands is home to the World Court and the International Criminal Court.
Assess court inheritance
Michael Karnavas, an American attorney who served on Ieng Sary’s defense team, said his personal expectations were limited to the quality of justice his clients would receive.
“In other words, regardless of the results, substantively and procedurally, are their fair trial rights guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution and established law granted to them at the highest level? international ?” he said in an email interview. “The response is somewhat mixed.”
“The stage of the trial was below what I consider fair. There was far too much improvisation on the part of the judges, and despite the length of the proceedings, the defense was not always treated fairly,” said Karnavas, who also appeared before the International Criminal Court. Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
“With regard to substantive and procedural law, there are many examples where the ECCC has not only done well, but has also contributed to the development of international criminal law.”
Everyone agrees that the tribunal’s legacy goes beyond the law books.
“The court successfully attacked the Khmer Rouge’s long-standing impunity and showed that while it could take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” said Craig Etcheson, who studied and wrote about the Khmer Rouge and served as Chief of Investigations for the Prosecutor’s Office at the ECCC from 2006 to 2012.
“The court has also created an extraordinary record of these crimes, including documentation that will be studied by scholars for decades, which will educate young Cambodians about the history of their country and which will deeply frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer. Red.”
The fundamental question of whether justice has been served by the court’s convictions of just three men was addressed by Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which holds a huge trove of evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.
“Justice is sometimes done in satisfaction, in recognition, rather than in the number of people you’re suing,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a broad definition of the word justice itself, but when people are satisfied, when people are satisfied with the process or benefit from the process, I think we can conceptualize it as justice.”