Days after four Khmer Rouge leaders were indicted on charges of genocide and war crimes, some of the tribunal's senior staff went to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin to explain the court's purpose.
Some former Khmer Rouge say Pol Pot bears sole responsibility for the crimes committed under his leadership
All four of the Khmer Rouge leaders indicted less than a fortnight ago used to live in this small town near the border with Thailand.
In fact, most of Pailin’s residents have a strong connection to the Khmer Rouge movement that devastated this country in the 1970s.
The UN-backed tribunal, which is based in Phnom Penh some 400 kilometers by road from here, says the Khmer Rouge movement is responsible for 2.2 million deaths from execution, starvation, overwork and illness during the movement’s rule of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Indicting the surviving leaders is one way of trying to punish some of those believed responsible for what happened.
Pol Pot blamed for the crimes
Unsurprisingly, the tribunal is not popular in places like Pailin.
Some people claim that Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s former leader who died in 1998, was solely responsible for the crimes the movement committed. This was a message repeated by Mey Mak, a deputy governor of Pailin, and a former secretary for Pol Pot.
The Cheung Ek Genocidal Center in Pnomh Penh
In the provincial town hall, Mey Mak sat at a table along with several of the tribunal’s senior staff, including international prosecutor Andrew Cayley.
Facing them sitting on plastic chairs spruced up with silk and cotton coverings sat a crowd of 250 people: monks, nuns, police and soldiers, as well as residents of the province who had been invited to hear the court’s message.
Most of them were former Khmer Rouge, and many knew the four people indicted, including the movement’s chief ideologue Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two.
The other three were the former head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, the former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith.
Mey Mak told the audience that Pol Pot, who died in 1998, was to blame. "So it seems to me that the court has indicted the wrong people," he explained. "The hands of these four were not stained with blood. Khieu Samphan was responsible for the economy. Ieng Sary was foreign minister, which meant he simply travelled in and out of Cambodia. And like them, Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, was under the power of Pol Pot and could do nothing to influence what happened."
Trial will determine extent of individual responsibility
This is not an argument that most Cambodians would support. As court spokesman Lars Olsen said afterwards, it is something that will be decided at their trial, which is slated to start next year.
Chum Mey, a victim of the Khmer Rouge, was angry when a lenient sentence was handed down to Kaing Gek Eav, alias Duch, former S-21 prison commander, in July
The trial will try to find out to what extent the four are individually responsible for the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, Olsen explained. After hearing testimonies and evidence, the judges will determine whether all or some of these four indicted persons indeed bear individual criminal responsibility or whether this lies with someone else.
The international prosecutor Andrew Cayley told those attending that heaping blame for mass crimes on the heads of dead leaders was common enough at other tribunals, and was something he anticipated would form part of the defense.
10 tried for deaths of so many
So much for the leaders. Perhaps more importantly, a number of those who attended the meeting in Pailin wanted to know how many people the court was looking to prosecute in total.
Cayley told them that the case of Duch, the former head of the Khmer Rouge’s torture and execution centre known as S-21, was the first. He was jailed in July for 30 years after being found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The four indicted this month comprise the next case and another five are currently under investigation.
"Those five may or may not go to trial, depending on the work of the investigating judges and what they find. So with those 10, that is it," Cayley said.
This message might have gone down well in Pailin but it is less likely to be welcomed outside of the former Khmer Rouge strongholds, as most Cambodians cannot understand how such a small number of people is going to end up being tried for the deaths of so many people.
Hun Sen opposes trials
In fact, it is unclear whether even the final five will be prosecuted. Many here believe that the outright opposition to their trials expressed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has effectively ruined the chances of Cambodian staff working on their investigations.
For now, only Duch has been convicted. The four elderly leaders will stand trial next year, although it is unlikely that all of them will survive a lengthy trial.
Many Cambodians attended the hearings at the UN-backed tribunal
On the positive side, most of the ex-Khmer Rouge who came to the court’s Pailin meeting wanted a copy of the Duch verdict, and just as many were keen to visit the court and see it in action.
"They are at least interested in learning more, and that’s good," said court spokesman Lars Olsen. "So the fact that they are skeptical about our work, that’s OK. They are skeptical but they want to learn – they are curious, and that’s a good starting point."
Author: Robert Carmichael (Pailin)
Editor: Anne Thomas