Crime & Justice

Cambodia’s opposition to more Khmer Rouge trials may end tribunal

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok Desk, Sep 24 (efe-epa).- In its 14-year history, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has reached important milestones such as life prison sentences for genocide against two of its former leaders, but its future hangs by a thread due to the Cambodian authorities and judges’ apparent opposition to continuing with the remaining investigations.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was a mid-level commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting, has reiterated its opposition to the remaining cases 003 and 004 of former senior members of the Maoist regime, which caused the deaths of nearly a quarter of the population between 1975 and 1979.

The hybrid United Nations-backed tribunal, officially created in 2006 under the name of Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), is comprised of both Cambodian and foreign lawyers and judges who enforce domestic and international laws.

After the convictions of Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), who died earlier this month, “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea, who died in August last year, and Khieu Samphan, the Cambodian judges have opposed continuing with the remaining cases, against the views of the foreign legal teams.

This division is evident in the investigations into the octogenarian former Khmer Rouge Navy chief Meas Muth (Case 003) and Yim Tith (Case 004), who was the highest level cadre in Sector 13, present-day Takeo province, both charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, among others.

Against the view of the international co-investigating judges, their national counterparts have asked for the dismissal of both cases on the basis that the former Khmer Rouge members were not subject to the ECCC’s jurisdiction as senior leaders or as officials most responsible for crimes committed during the regime’s period, reasons that led to the dropping of the investigations into Ao An and Im Chaem (Case 004).

At the end of this year the tribunal will decide on whether to proceed with the trial of Meas Muth, 81, and in the case of Yim Tith, 83, the decision will be announced in the first quarter of 2021, ECCC spokesperson Neth Pheaktra told EFE.

“I think it is quite likely that the cases will be dismissed,” John Ciorciari, associate professor at the University of Michigan, United States, and co-author of the book “Hybrid Justice: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia,” told EFE.

“With little prospect of those cases advancing, with the deaths of Duch and Nuon Chea, and after years of mounting donor frustration and fatigue, it is doubtful that the tribunal will be open much longer,” he added in an email.

According to Ciorciari, “Hun Sen and other senior Cambodian officials have opposed Cases 003 and 004 from the start. Their public statements to that effect constitute at least indirect pressure to prevent the cases from moving to trial.”

In 2018, after many years of processes and $250 million spent by international donors, the tribunal delivered a landmark ruling, sentencing Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to life in prison for the genocide of ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims during the regime’s reign. They had already been serving life in prison for crimes against humanity in a 2014 ruling.

Some experts point out that the main drawback of the tribunal has been the de-facto veto power of the Cambodian judges.

Between 2010 and 2015, at least four international judges resigned, which local media attributed to a range of problems such as issues within the court and with their national counterparts, as well as with authorities.

Hun Sen, in power since 1985, agreed to the tribunal in the beginning, but later opposed proceeding with cases beyond 001 (Duch) and 002 (Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan), alleging that they would create unrest and division in the country, where some former Khmer Rouge members are now government members.

“The Cambodian judges in the court will comply with whatever PM Hun Sen and the government order them to do, and Hun Sen has said all along that he does not want to see cases 003 and 004 in court,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told EFE.

“The tribunal achieved only a small fraction of the potential it had for justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The ECCC will be remembered as a clear example of how not to conduct an international justice procedure,” Robertson added.

As well as Duch and Nuon Chea, other Khmer Rouge leaders have died in recent years, such as the regime’s former foreign affairs minister Ieng Sary and his wife and social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith, who died in 2013 and 2015 respectively (both Case 002). Ieng Sary died aged 87 while on trial, and Ieng Thirith was declared unfit for trial due to dementia before she also died.  

With a median age of 25, most Cambodians did not live under the regime led by “Brother Number 1” Pol Pot, which resulted in between 1.7 and 2.2 million deaths from mass killings, disease, starvation and overwork in the quest to create an agrarian utopia.

At least 12,000 people were murdered after being arrested and tortured in the notorious Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) run by Duch, who was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity when he died at age 77.

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