Cambodia brings Khmer Rouge leaders to justice

Forty years after the regime’s atrocities, its top brass have finally been tried and convicted. Simon Crowther reports.

Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, awaits his verdict. ECCC under a Creative Commons Licence

On 7 August, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convicted Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two of the Khmer Rouge’s most senior figures, for crimes against humanity. In just four years, between April 1974 and September 1979, an estimated two million Cambodians lost their lives, a quarter of the population.

As part of a Maoist project to reshape society, citizens of Cambodia’s cities were forced to move into communes – effectively forced labour camps where they were treated as third-class citizens. Those associated with the regime of Lon Nol, who had been president between 1972 and 1975, were executed, and thousands starved to death.

Today, the pain suffered in the 1970s is still palpable. Large memorials full of bones and skulls are far from uncommon, and many of the country’s citizens still have visible scars. To quote a Cambodian friend, ‘in Cambodia, everyone is traumatized’.

The Khmer Rouge regime came to an end in 1979 with the invasion of Vietnam. In a cruel application of Cold War realpolitik, the Khmer Rouge still maintained Cambodia’s seat at the UN until 1992, with the support of the General Assembly. An enemy of Vietnam was considered an ally of the West, and attempts to bring those responsible to justice faltered.

Illustrative of the international support provided to the deposed Khmer Rouge leadership was British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to send the Special Air Service (SAS) to train them in order to defend the small portion of Cambodia still under their control.

In 2011, the trial of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders eventually commenced. At Cambodia’s insistence, the trial took place on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, rather than in a neutral, international location. Local participation has been impressive, with almost half of the major court roles held by local lawyers, and the presidency of the court held by Nil Nonn, a Cambodian judge.

However, this has also led to accusations of corruption, nepotism and political pressure. International donor fatigue has at times crippled the tribunal, with staff striking after prolonged periods of going unpaid.

Of the four senior leaders originally charged, only two have made it to the end of the trial. Ieng Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial in 2011 due to Alzheimer’s disease, and Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, died in 2013. As a result of fears that the trial could take longer to complete than the accused would live, the trial was split into two, with the first mini-trial focusing on very specific historical events – the evacuation of Phnom Penh, the forcible movement of the population and the killing of Lon Nol officials at an execution site called Tuol Po Chrey.

This split has proven highly controversial as for many, the prosecution included, these events fail to provide a representative sample of the atrocities perpetrated under the Khmer Rouge regime.

That the ruling brought two of the Khmer Rouge’s most senior leaders to justice is no small feat.

Nuon Chea was Pol Pot’s second-in-command, and Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge head of state. However, the retributive utility of an 88-year-old and an 83-year-old being given life sentences is questionable; at a cost of $200 million, many in Cambodia question whether the resources spent on the trial could have been better used elsewhere.

Modern-day Cambodians have a life expectancy of just 63, and child labour is rife. Both defence teams have already announced their intention to appeal against the verdict, and given the defendants’ age and ill health, there is a significant chance they will not survive to the end of their appeals.

One can only hope that knowing two Khmer Rouge leaders have been brought to justice will have some long-term restorative effect in Cambodia, and that history will remember kindly the belated and expensive endeavours to bring them there.