For more than 15 years, a court in a military camp on the outskirts of Phnom Penh has worked to bring some measure of justice to the horrors that killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the late 1970s. It spent more than $330 million. In the end, it convicted only three people.
On Thursday, the Extraordinary Chamber at the Cambodian Court – the United Nations-backed court charged with prosecuting crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime – held its final hearing. It rejected the appeal of Khieu Samphan, 91, the last surviving leader of the fanatical communist movement, upholding his conviction and life sentence for genocide, as well as his sentence I give other crimes.
As the verdict was read, Mr Khieu Samphan, his face partially obscured by large black headphones and a white mask, sat down in his seat.
During its four years in power, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of about 1.7 million Cambodians from execution, torture, starvation, and untreated disease as they sought to eradicate the and created an agricultural utopia.
For many Cambodians who survived one of the worst mass murders in a bloody century, the fact that the courts handed down so few sentences, for years after the atrocity was committed, left it seems to be an empty exercise. Many high-ranking Khmer Rouge figures – including its notorious top leader, Pol Pot – died long before the court was established.
Yun Bin, 67, who was beaten by regime cadres and left to die in a ditch. “Some of the victims in my village have died.”
Mr. Khieu Samphan, an ethnic minority and multilingual, is the nominal leader and face of the Khmer Rouge and a member of its tight inner circle. During the court proceedings, Khieu Samphan asserted that he was “not aware of the atrocities committed by other leaders”.
Delayed by war and politics, the court, jointly administered by the United Nations and the Cambodian government, was not formally established until 2006, more than a quarter-century after a Vietnamese invasion. Nam knocked the Khmer Rouge out of power. (The group continued for years afterward as a guerrilla revolt.)
The court’s awkward juxtaposition of two judicial systems, and two often conflicting views of its purpose, has resulted in delays and sometimes bitter controversy. In addition to being criticized for its high costs and slow pace, the courts have been ravaged by corruption and succumbed to pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge official, to limit crimes. of prosecutions.
Alexander Hinton, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University who watched the trial and testified in court as an expert witness, said all of those issues were foreseeable. However, he said, it would be unacceptable not to prosecute the perpetrators of what he called “some of the worst crimes in history”.
“Personally, I always had very low expectations for what was going to happen, and those expectations were met,” Professor Hinton said in an interview.
But he said the court shone a light on a moment many older Cambodians want to forget, and many young people find it hard to believe.
Up to three-quarters of Cambodia’s population is currently under the age of 30, and many Khmer Rouge survivors have said that their descendants have dismissed their stories of the time as exaggerated and improbable. .
The Khmer Rouge evacuated entire cities, including sick people in hospitals, marching hundreds of thousands of people into the countryside on foot; created a nationwide system of forced labor camps, torture houses, and execution sites, known as murder fields; religion and commerce are prohibited; tear the family apart; and executed those deemed part of the old order, in some cases simply because they wore glasses.
It is only in the last decade that schools in Cambodia have begun to teach students about the Khmer Rouge era, motivated in part by the existence of the court.
Youk Chhang, a survivor who heads Cambodia’s Document Center, which provides most of the documents used by the court, said the younger generation must learn from the past and work towards “a more optimistic future”. “.
Indeed, the court’s main achievement was the creation, through meticulous research and trial testimony, “an empirical record that can never be modified or challenged,” said Peter Maguire, an expert war crimes expert and author of “Facing Death in Cambodia,” said in an email.
One of its major shortcomings, he said, is that the number of people prosecuted is so small, in part because Hun Sen, the prime minister, fears the trials could spiral out of control and cause political problems. for his government.
Only five people were brought to trial, two of whom died before facing sentencing. Some of the most important potential defendants died before they could be charged, chief among them Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Khieu Samphan unsuccessfully appealed against a previous conviction, in 2014, for murder and other charges. He received a life sentence in that case, which will remain in effect regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s hearing.
His co-defendant, Nuon Chea, commonly known as Pol Pot’s Brother Number Two, was also found guilty in both trials and sentenced to life in prison. He died at the age of 93, less than a year after two men were convicted of genocide in 2018.
The third person convicted by the court was Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the commander of the Khmer Rouge’s central prison in Phnom Penh. Thousands of people were tortured there before being taken to a killing field on the outskirts of the city and executed. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for crimes against humanity and died in 2020, aged 77.
Craig Etcheson, a procedural expert and former visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said: “Although Thursday’s hearing marks the end of active litigation, court, but that does not mean the trial is over.
Now, a three-year “legacy phase” during which donor governments can decide to fund follow-up projects such as outreach, support for victims who have gone to trial , preservation of archives and analysis of court law.
“It’s not over yet,” said Youk Chhang of the Cambodia Documentation Center. “We have at least five million survivors – a third of the population – who have suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge whose stories are not even heard or recorded.”
One of them was a 66-year-old man named Nak, who dismissed the entire court process as a political exercise. He did not give his full name, saying he is still afraid of retribution for speaking his mind.
“Everybody died,” he said. “The trial means nothing to them. It’s a waste of money if there’s a trial available.”
Sun Narin contribution report.