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Efforts to prosecute Khmer Rouge head toward final curtain

Appeals, disputes and a death take center stage at Cambodia’s genocide tribunal

Efforts to prosecute Khmer Rouge head toward final curtain

In this file photo taken on March 29, 2013, a tourist walks past a photo of former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea displayed for visitors at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Nuon Chea died on Aug. 4 aged 93. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Published: August 05, 2019 09:15 AM GMT

Updated: August 05, 2019 09:30 AM GMT

The Khmer Rouge war crimes trial has gripped the public conscience for more than 13 years, with gruesome evidence and horrific tales from one of the great atrocities of the 20th century reaching its zenith with genocide convictions against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan late last year.

But the final acts of the ultra-Maoists are being rewritten after the sudden death of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea against a backdrop of legal wrangling.

He was to appeal his genocide conviction alongside former head of state Khieu Samphan, who will now have to go it alone. Meanwhile, another senior prosecutor has resigned and only one more Pol Pot acolyte is likely to face the tribunal.

If the trial of Ao An does not go ahead, the doors at the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) could close within a year. At best there might be another two years to run in legal proceedings packed with drama and history that have cost more than US$300 million.

For some, the price of justice has been too high. But others like to remind the ECCC’s many critics that finding justice for the two million people who died under the Khmer Rouge equates to a mere US$150 a victim — the same price tag as one bridge across the Mekong River. 

Appeals a standard procedure

Khieu Samphan, 88, and Nuon Chea, who died at 93 after being admitted to hospital for a toe ulcer, have remained defiant since losing their appeals against life sentences for convictions in their first trial for crimes against humanity.

Thus, a successful appeal in the genocide case will not set Khieu Samphan free and appeals within the ECCC have generally been unsuccessful. In a separate trial of Kaing Guek Eav, commandant of the S-21 torture and extermination camp, he actually received a heavier sentence.

The courts judged him on crimes committed at S-21 where up to 24,000 people were sent for slaughter between 1975 and 1979. About 200 such camps were constructed across the country. Among the earliest was M-13, a prototype established by Pol Pot and Duch in 1971.

Chan Voeun was stationed inside M-13 and testified it was here that Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Duch — was happy, like a madman, while torturing prisoners. One woman was hanged from a tree, her shirt was stripped off and her breasts burned with a lit kerosene rag.

These types of tragedies did not end until Vietnamese tanks rolled into Phnom Penh in early 1979, when the Khmer Rouge leadership was destroying evidence that could be used against them. The court heard how Nuon Chea was angered by the bungling Duch, a former mathematician.

Duch kept forced confessions, details and precise figures at S-21 but he failed to destroy all the paperwork as leaders packed and fled for the relative safety of the Thai border in remote northwest Cambodia — evidence that would help secure their convictions almost 40 years later.

This paperwork also provided a crucial link between the subordinate, Duch, and the hierarchy, Nuon Chea, needed to prove genocide.

It’s a relationship lawyers will revisit during the appeal by Khieu Sampan and one that is likely to stand given that Brother Number Two can no longer contest his genocide conviction.

The final act

The spotlight at the tribunal has shifted from prosecution of senior leaders to slightly lower-level cadre also blamed for the obliteration of Khmer culture through genocide, starvation and illness brought about by forced labor and enslavement.

But success at this level has been abysmal despite the best efforts of international prosecutors.

A major concern is a perceived rift between international and local judges over whether to proceed with the trials of Meas Muth, Im Chaem, Yim Tith and Ao An amid speculation the government would prefer not to see any further prosecutions.

Judge Michael Bohlander from Germany resigned in June after differing with his Cambodian counterpart, who insisted Yim Tith, now a wealthy businessman charged with genocide, did not fall within the court’s jurisdiction.

A similar dispute involved Meas Muth, the former naval commander who was responsible for seizing foreign sailors plying the waters in the Gulf of Siam. Mariners from Australia, New Zealand and the United States were among them.

They were taken to S-21, forced to sign off on confessions and killed. One was taken outside the gates of the former school, placed in a tire, doused with petrol and burned alive.

The case against Im Chaem was also dropped. She allegedly oversaw the killing of 40,000 people at the notorious Phnom Trayoung security center and Spean Sreng worksite. And she now says she is a Christian: “My mind is fresh and open with blessings from God.”

Last man standing

That leaves Ao An as the only prospect for trial. He was charged with crimes against humanity and the “extermination, persecution on political and religious grounds and other inhumane acts.”

His case is considered politically sensitive amid arguments his testimony could implicate high-ranking members in the current government and ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Ao An made his name in the communist movement when the Khmer Rouge decided to purge its own ranks, resulting in the deaths of perhaps 140,000 people in the Central Zone. He began with the top of the hierarchy and worked down to the village level.

Whether he is prosecuted remains to be seen. His case will almost certainly be the last.

There are hundreds of other Khmer Rouge loyalists living freely across Cambodia — sometimes entire villages — who deserve to be brought before the courts but are outside the ECCC remit, which was restricted to prosecuting only the most senior cadre.

That is another great tragedy of Pol Pot’s legacy. Finding genuine justice for the stupid, mad carnage he and his henchmen wreaked across Cambodia was always an impossible ask. What finally emerges from the ECCC will at best be cold comfort for the survivors.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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