October 6, 2022

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) – An international tribunal convened in Cambodia to try the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutalities that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s is wrapping up its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convicted only three criminals.

In what was to be its final session, the UN-backed tribunal began issuing its ruling on an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He was convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He appeared in court wearing a white windbreaker, wearing a face mask and listening to the proceedings with headphones. Seven judges were present.

Khieu Samphan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his defense at trial, denied that he had any real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge imposed a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, causing Cambodians to die from execution, starvation and inadequate medical care. . He was ousted from power in 1979 by the invasion of the neighboring communist state of Vietnam.

“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his closing statement to the court last year. “I will die always remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die seeing that I am alone in front of you. I am being judged symbolically, not based on my actual actions as an individual.”

In his appeal, he alleged that the court made errors in legal procedures and interpretation and acted unfairly. But the court noted Thursday that his appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case as presented in court. He ruled point by point on the arguments put forward by Khieu Samphan, rejecting almost all of them and saying that the final judgment of several hundred pages would be official when it was published.

The final verdict makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 years old and already serving another life sentence for a 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity related to forced displacement and mass disappearances.

His co-defendant Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2 leader and chief ideologue, was convicted twice and received the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.

The tribunal’s only other verdict was that of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was the commander of Tuol Sleng prison, where some 16,000 people were tortured before being taken to be killed. Duch was convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity, murder and torture and died in 2020 at the age of 77 while serving a life sentence.

The real leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped justice. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72, while the remnants of his movement fought their last battles in the guerrilla war they launched after losing power.

The trials of the only other two defendants have not been completed. Former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, and his wife, former Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, was declared incompetent due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.

Four other suspects, mid-level Khmer Rouge leaders, avoided prosecution because of divisions among the tribunal’s lawyers.

In an innovative hybrid arrangement, Cambodian and international lawyers were paired at each stage, with a majority having to agree for the case to proceed. Under the French-style judicial procedures used by the court, international investigators recommended the four go to trial, but local partners disagreed after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said there would be no further prosecutions, arguing it could spark unrest.

Hun Sen himself was a middle-ranking commander in the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have similar backgrounds. He helped consolidate his political control by forging alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.

With its active work, the Tribunal, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is now entering a three-year “remaining” period, focusing on putting its archives in order and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.

Experts who participated in the work of the court or followed its proceedings are now reflecting on its legacy.

Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years monitoring the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the tribunal had been successful in providing a level of accountability.

“The amount of time, money and effort that goes into achieving this rather limited goal can be disproportionate to the goal,” she said in a video interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado.

But she praised the trials “in a country where the atrocities took place and where people were able to pay a certain level of attention and gather information about what was happening in the court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague or elsewhere. ” The Hague in the Netherlands hosts the World Court and the International Criminal Court.

Michael Karnavas, an American attorney who served on Ieng Sary’s defense team, said his personal expectations were limited to the quality of justice his clients would receive.

“In other words, regardless of the results, substantively and procedurally, are their rights to a fair trial guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution and established law afforded them at the highest international level?” he said in an email interview. “The answer is a bit mixed.”

“The trial phase was shorter than what I consider fair. There was too much improvisation by the judges, and despite the length of the proceedings, the defense was not always treated fairly,” said Karnavas, who appeared before both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. .

“In terms of substantive and procedural law, there are numerous examples in which the ECCC not only acted correctly, but additionally contributed to the development of international criminal law.”

There is a consensus that the Tribunal’s legacy goes beyond the statute books.

“The court successfully attacked the Khmer Rouge’s longstanding impunity and showed that, while it may take time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” said Craig Etcheson, who has studied and written about the Khmer Rouge and was the bureau’s chief of investigations. of the ECCC prosecution from 2006 to 2012.

“The Tribunal has also created an extraordinary record of these crimes, consisting of documentation that scholars will study for decades to come, that will educate the youth of Cambodia about their country’s history, and that will profoundly frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.”

Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has a huge amount of evidence of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, dealt with the basic question of whether justice was served by court verdicts for only three men.

“Justice is sometimes about satisfaction, about recognition, not about the number of people you prosecute,” he told The Associated Press. “That’s a broad definition of the word justice itself, but when people are satisfied, when people are satisfied with the process or benefit from the process, I think we can conceptualize that as justice.”


Peck reported from Bangkok. AP reporter Jerry Harmer contributed to this report.

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