Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > General > The Khmer Rouge tribunal : Justice and the killing fields | The (...)

The Khmer Rouge tribunal : Justice and the killing fields | The Economist

7 November 2013

print version of this article print version

THE long and often fraught proceedings of the court set up to try the leaders of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge at last came to a head this week on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The two remaining survivors from the regime’s leadership, Nuon Chea, who is 87, and Khieu Samphan, 82, made their closing statements before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, to give the tribunal its full title. It was only the second trial, and probably the last. A public gallery of Buddhist monks, Islamic clergy, local schoolgirls and foreign journalists looked on.

Mr Nuon Chea was the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and “Brother Number Two” to Pol Pot, who died (untried) in 1998. Mr Khieu Samphan was the head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge styled its totalitarian Cambodia. They are both accused of crimes against humanity and genocide. This part of their trial concerns the first charge, relating to the forced evacuation of the capital in 1975; no date has been set to hear the genocide charges. Both deny they had anything very much to do with the deaths of a quarter of the population, or about 2m people, from 1975 to 1979. Slave labour to forge an agrarian Utopia; the torture and extermination of ethnic Vietnamese, Cham Muslims and intellectuals (ie, anyone who wore spectacles); and the systematic murder of babies: all were apparently somebody else’s idea.

Throughout the trial, Mr Nuon Chea sported dark glasses and complained that the lights were too bright. A pitiless dogmatist, he once declined to save two nieces from his own regime. Both were doctors, but as educated people they, along with their families, were duly despatched to the dreaded Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison, of whose total of 17,000 inmates only a dozen emerged alive.

On October 31st Mr Nuon Chea expressed remorse for the suffering under the Khmer Rouge but dodged any personal responsibility. He blamed it all on “treacherous” subordinates. Yet a co-prosecutor, William Smith, an Australian, methodically summed up 212 days of hearings, testimony from 92 people, and documentary evidence that included telegrams sent to Pol Pot’s headquarters with daily accounts of the atrocities being committed. It all left little room for doubt that the regime’s leaders knew exactly what was going on.

Sentencing is expected early next year, and the prosecution is demanding life in prison for both ageing defendants. But even if it gets its way, wider questions about the court’s work and legacy will remain. The court’s investigations into the crimes began in July 2007 and to date have cost $200m. The first trial ended in July 2010 with the conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch: the head of Tuol Sleng, he is the only former Khmer Rouge leader to have admitted to crimes.

If these two also go down, the court will have only three convictions to its name (one other defendant, Ieng Sary, died in March, while another, his wife, was ruled mentally unfit to continue). Unsurprisingly, many Cambodians question whether justice has really been served, or whether the financial cost, even if underwritten by the West, was worth it. [. . . ].