The Khmer Rouge court closes its proceedings after 16 years, 3 sentences

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – On Thursday, the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal rejected an appeal against a conviction for genocide by the Communist group’s last surviving leader in what should be the last session of the special tribunal.

The historic international court issued its ruling on an appeal by Khieu Samphan, who served as head of state in the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia in 1975-79. He was convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

The court spent $ 337 million and 16 years sentencing just him and two other defendants in connection with a reign of terror that claimed the lives of approximately 1.7 million people.

Khieu Sampan denied having had a say in politics when the Khmer Rouge sought to establish a utopian agrarian society, causing their countrymen to die from executions, starvation and inadequate medical care.

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) – An international court convened in Cambodia to judge the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge regime that claimed the lives of around 1.7 million people in the 1970s finished its work on Thursday after spending 337 millions of dollars and 16 years to convict just three men of crime.

In what was to be its final session, the United Nations-assisted 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 in prison.

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

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

“Whatever you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Samphan said in his final appeal statement to the court last year. “I will always remember the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will see that I am alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than by my actual actions as an individual ”.

In his appeal, he claimed that the court erred in legal procedures and interpretation and acted unfairly. But the court noted Thursday that his appeal did not directly question the facts of the case presented in court. He deliberated point by point on the arguments raised by Khieu Samphan, dismissing virtually all of them and saying that his final judgment of several hundred pages would be official when published.

The final judgment makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan is 91 years old and is already serving another life sentence for his 2014 sentence for crimes against humanity linked to forced displacements and disappearances of masses of people.

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

The only other court sentence was that of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, commander of Tuol Sleng prison, where around 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Duch was convicted in 2010 for 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, has escaped justice. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72 while the remnants of his movement were fighting the last battles in the guerilla warfare 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 Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was found ineligible for trial due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015. .

Four other suspects, middle-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to a split among court lawyers.

In an innovative hybrid arrangement, Cambodian and international lawyers were paired at every stage and the majority had to consider for a case to move forward. Under French-style judicial procedures used by the court, international investigators recommended the four go to trial, but local partners would disagree after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said there would be no more prosecutions. judicial, claiming that they could have caused unrest.

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

With its active work, the court, formally called Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is now entering a “residual” period of three years, focusing on putting its records in order and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.

Experts who took part in the court’s work or monitored its proceedings are now reflecting on his legacy.

Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years following the court for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the court managed to provide some level of accountability.

“The amount of time, money and effort spent on achieving this rather limited goal may be disproportionate to the goal,” he said in a video interview from his home in Boulder, Colorado.

But he praised the trials “in the country where the atrocities occurred and where people were able to pay a level of attention and gather information about what was happening in court to a much greater extent than if the court had been. in the Hague or some other place. ” The Hague in the Netherlands is home to 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 had been limited to the quality of justice his clients would receive.

“In other words, apart from the results, substantially and procedurally, were their rights to a fair trial guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution and established law guaranteed to them at the highest international level?” she said in an email interview. “The answer is somewhat mixed.”

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

“As far as substantive and procedural law is concerned, there are numerous examples where the ECCC not only proved right, but further contributed to the development of international criminal law.”

There is a consensus that the court’s legacy goes beyond the books of law.

“The court successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge and showed that although it may take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,” said Craig Etcheson, who studied and wrote about Khmer Rouge and was head of investigation for the prosecutor’s office at the ECCC from 2006 to 2012.

“The court has also created extraordinary documentation of those crimes, including documentation that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, which will educate young Cambodians about the history of their country and which will profoundly nullify any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. “.

The fundamental question of whether justice was served by the court’s convictions of only three men was addressed by Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which holds a huge treasure trove of evidence of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

“Justice is sometimes about satisfaction, recognition, rather than the number of people you prosecute,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a broad definition of the word justice itself, but when people are satisfied, when people are happy with the process or taking advantage of it, I think we can conceptualize it as justice.”


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