The indictment pronounced by the Co-Investigation judges of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal against former Khmer Rouge leaders comes 31 years after the fall of the regime, and 12 years after its military and political structures were finally dismantled

The indictment pronounced by the Co-Investigation judges of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal against former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, Foreign Minister leng Sary, Social Action minister Ieng Thirith (wife of Ieng Sary and sister-in-law of Pol Pot), and Nuon Chea (known as Brother No. 2 in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy) comes 31 years after the fall of the regime, and 12 years after its military and political structures were finally dismantled. Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the notorious head of the S-21 prison was tried and convicted separately by the Tribunal on 26 July 2010.

Their crimes include extermination, murder, enslavement, deportation (of Vietnamese people), imprisonment, torture and persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, rape, and other inhumane acts. According to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) between 1.7 and 2.2 million people died under the Khmer Rouge regime, and around 800,000 of these were violent deaths.

It is a phase of Cambodian history that has passed an entire generation of young Cambodians by. They know of it only through their parents, and memorials like the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh where the chilling history of that period is brought to life. The innocuous school building in which classrooms became torture chambers, and where 17,000 Cambodians were killed, is today a place where that past is relived.

“There are mixed feeling towards this trial,” said a judge from the Asian region who is on the Supreme Court Chamber of the Tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea. “Some people want justice, others do not want to rekindle the past. The procedures followed by the Tribunal is based on the French legal system which makes it very slow, and will prosecute only the “most guilty”.”

Unforgettable mental trauma

Kay Kimsong, Editor-in-Chief of the Phnom Penh Post dismisses the view that time has erased collective memory. “There is a great deal of public and media interest in the cases,” he said. “Justice may be delayed but this trial is very important for the Cambodian people. Many young people cannot believe what their parents tell them, but here is documentation and evidence, here is Duch confessing to his crimes. My parents and everyone in their generation lost one or more family members, everyone suffered acute mental trauma. They can never forget.”

The ECCC was established in 2001 by a law passed by the Cambodian National Assembly. On Cambodia’s request, the United Nations agreed to participate, and the ECCC became fully functional in 2007. The five-tier tribunal has both national and international prosecutors and judges.

The ECCC is only prosecuting the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge, those who planned and gave orders and who are guilty of the most serious crimes. Of this group, Pol Pot and Ta Mok are dead, and the rest are old and frail.

The court’s second trial is likely to take place in the first half of next year, giving rise to fears that the accused may not survive that long. “Cambodians want the courts to move faster,” said Mr. Kimsong. “The prisoners have been getting excellent treatment and good medical care in custody. We want to hear them speak and defend themselves, we want to know what went on behind the scenes.”

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