The trial of the four most senior surviving members of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge began today with one of the defendants, 84-year-old Nuon Chea — “Brother Number Two” who is widely believed to the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue — leaving court after saying “I am not happy with this hearing.” Chua, former president Khieu Samphan, ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary and former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith are charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed three decades ago. They are being tried in the multi-million dollar Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a joint tribunal of the United Nations and Cambodia that has, says the New York Times, lasted for five years and cost more than $100 million.
The trial is “intended finally to lay the past to rest,” ”the past” being one of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, the ultra-Maoist “Killing Fields” revolution in which, under “First Brother” Pol Pot, a quarter of Cambodia’s population — an estimated 1.7 million — were killed through torture, execution, starvation and exhaustion from 1975 to 1979. But Chea’s exit from the courtroom is a sign of the “legal maneuvering” that may characterize the trial. While many in Cambodia and around the world see the trial as a chance to “clarify for history” the murderous actions of the Khmer Rouge, the defendants have all denied the charges. Detained since 2007 and questioned 46 times by judges, all four are elderly and in frail health, and there are fears that they may not survive what will be a lengthy trial.
Chea, according to his lawyers, cites an “alternate” version of the history of the Khmer Rouge in which they were Cambodia’s “national liberators, guarding against Vietnamese incursions and motivated by heavy American bombing in a secret campaign during the Vietnam War.” Ieng Thirith has “angrily professed her innocence in a pretrial hearing” and blamed Chea for the killings; her husband, Ieng Sary, was convicted in 1979 after the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge’s route; in 1996, he was given a royal pardon and amnesty, which will very likely be brought up at the trial. Only Samphan has been willing to cooperate with the court, but he has written a book saying he did not know about the killings, and will present his version of events at the trial.
Last July, the ECCC convicted Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the commandant of the S-21 or Tuol Sleng interrogation center and prison where approximately 14,000 died. He was sentenced to 35 years, but his term was reduced to 19 years and, says the Guardian, is “seen by many Cambodians as too lenient”:
The closest any of the former cadres have come to disclosure is seen in an award-winning documentary film yet to be released in Cambodia entitled “Enemies of the People”, in which Nuon Chea, during six years of recorded interviews with a journalist, admitted those seen as threats to the party line were “corrected” at the behest of the regime.
The filmmakers have said they would not hand over tapes if asked by the court, but judges say material from the film can be used by prosecutors once in the public domain.
Prime Minister Hun Sen — a “former Khmer Rouge cadre” — has “made no secret of his disdain” for the court. Last year, he informed the head of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, that “further indictments were ‘not allowed.’” The decision not to pursue a third case against two senior Khmer Rouge military commanders has led to “resignations by court staff and outrage from rights groups complaining of political interference by Cambodia’s government and inaction by the United Nations.” The BBC reports that the court is in disarray, with head of a victims’ association, Theary Seng, calling on the court’s director and the UN-appointed administrator of the tribunal to resign.
All of this is a terrible tragedy in and of itself. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says that the second trial is a “cathartic moment” for a traumatized country. As he said, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge
“…remain ingrained in Cambodia’s collective psyche. I hope that this trial … provides all victims with some sense of justice, however delayed that justice may be.”
Many who survived the killings including photojournalist Dith Pran. His story was the basis for the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. As Al Jazeera‘s Aela Callan says, “for many Cambodians, this is as close as they can get to seeing justice.”
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Photo of the Cheung Ek Killing Fields site, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 2009, by Adam Jones Adam63.