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Justice awaited

Robert Carmichael, Phnom PenhOctober 15, 2013

As the UN-backed tribunal is set to hear closing arguments in the trial of two former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians expect a judgement that at least punishes the perpetrators of mass crimes symbolically.

Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), handout photograph released 30 August 2012 shows a general view in the courtroom at the (ECCC), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 30 August 2012 (Photo: EPA/NHET SOK HENG / ECCC / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On Wednesday, October 16, the United Nations' backed tribunal will begin hearing closing arguments in the trial of two former leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement, during whose 1975-79 rule one in four Cambodians died.

The closing arguments, which are scheduled to last for the next two weeks, represent the final chance for the various parties in the trial – the defense, the prosecution, and lawyers for victims – to be heard by the bench.

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen says the culmination of this initial segment of Case 002, as the trial of the ex-leaders is known, is “a milestone and a step further to some kind of closure for the victims.”

“The victims, who have waited now for more than 38 years, are soon to see at least a judgement coming out against two people accused of being part of the regime that orchestrated mass crimes against the population in Cambodia,” he told DW.

Once the closing arguments end, the five judges will retire to consider their verdict, a lengthy process that will require them to weigh up thousands of documents and more than 200 days of testimony. The verdict is expected in the first half of 2014 but, given the volume of paperwork, it could take longer.

Former Khmer Rouge official, Nuon Chea, who was deputy to leader Pol Pot, appears in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on the second day of Case 002, on November 22, 2011 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photo: Mark Peters/ECCC via Getty Images)
Earlier this year, the court ruled Brother Number Two 'fit' for trialImage: Mark Peters/ECCC via Getty Images

Limited time, limited scope

For many survivors, the biggest risk is that one or both of the octogenarian defendants could die before a judgement is rendered. That is an outcome with which this tribunal is already familiar: When Case 002 began in November 2011 there were four ex-leaders in the dock. Now only two remain: Nuon Chea, 87, known as Brother Number Two, who was Pol Pot's deputy; and Khieu Samphan, 82, who was head of state.

Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March of heart failure. His wife, Ieng Thirith, was the social affairs minister during the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime, but was last year ruled unfit for trial due to dementia.

All four defendants were charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity - all of which they denied - in a lengthy indictment that runs to more than 500 pages. The complexity of the case and the age of the accused saw the judges divide it into a series of smaller trials, and it is the first of these – known as Case 002/01 – that is now ending.

However, the limited scope of this case has led to controversy, as it focused mainly on the forced movement of people, including the evacuation of all urban areas in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge drove the population into rural work camps.

As trial observers point out, the charges of Cambodians being enslaved and forced into brutal work camps have not yet been examined. The same is true for most of the crimes in the indictment. With aging defendants, the risks of another lengthy mini-trial are obvious. The five judges are tied up until mid-2014 with the Case 002/01, and getting a second mini-trial underway promptly would require a new panel of judges. That, for the cash-strapped court, would entail money and agreement from its sponsors - the United Nations and the Cambodian government.

Long Panhavuth, program officer at the Cambodia Justice Initiative, which monitors the court, is one of many who believe the focus and scope of the first mini-trial was too limited. He says it is “worrying” that the court has not yet decided when the second mini-trial will commence or what precise charges it will hear.

Some responsibility

Despite the limitations of Case 002/01, the trial did produce some notable moments. One of those took place in May, when both men apologized to victims of the Khmer Rouge. Khieu Samphan admitted that the revolutionary effort to develop Cambodia, which ended with around two million people dead, had been “a complete disaster.”

Both men accepted some responsibility, with Nuon Chea quick to stress that he would shoulder only “moral responsibility.” Both accused also insisted that they were unaware of the terrible suffering being dealt to their people, and claimed that they had not held real power.

Their acknowledgement of responsibility, albeit limited, was welcomed by some.

Weeks later both Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea told the court they would no longer testify on the grounds that they had lost confidence in its ability to provide a fair trial.

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen, said, however: "We have indications that both accused will be speaking the closing arguments to at least give a final account on their versions of the story, so hopefully at least this will be interesting both for victims and other observers to listen to,” Olsen says.

Long Panhavuth says victims still want “to hear the truth,” adding that such a step could help the survivors to come to terms with what had happened.

“It is very important that Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan should say what people would like to hear because they are old – and sorry to say but they may die soon,” he says. “So they should reveal some kind of the truth, which would contribute a lot to reconciliation.”

Skulls are seen in Phnom Penh in this April 17, 1981 file photo. The authorities say the victims were tied together by rope - seen in this photograph - before being executed by followers of Premier Pol Pot who was ousted from Power in early 1979 (Photo: AP Photo/D. Gray, File)
The Khmer Rouge's reign of terror wiped out around one fourth of the Cambodian populationImage: AP

‘Must not forget'

Given the multitude of challenges facing the court – aging defendants and funding problems are just two of them – there is a reasonable chance that the next fortnight could represent the final chance for Cambodians to hear their former leaders explain themselves.

Yet, should they choose not to, the simple fact that they were arrested and put on trial in the first place has been profoundly significant, says Youk Chhang, the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the country's leading research organization into the crimes of the Khmer Rouge era.

Chhang believes the legal arguments swirling around the case have meant little to most people; seeing their former leaders behind bars for the past six years has been essential.

“I mean none of us are lawyers,” he says. “[But] all of us are survivors or victims of the Khmer Rouge, and what we want is to see them in prison and convicted to a lifetime in prison.”

And, he adds, many Cambodians believe that is a foregone conclusion. “We know that they never will be released for the rest of their lives unless they die like Ieng Sary,” he says. “And even if they die in prison, to the Khmer people they have been cursed by their bad karma.”

Most importantly, Chhang adds, Cambodians must not forget what happened but must learn from it even as they move ahead.

“It is part of us, it is our identity, and we have faced this and we have to carry it with us,” he says. “We should not allow the past to frame our future, but we must not forget this thing. That's important for Cambodia, for all of us.”