Cambodia's Khmer Rouge genocide trial battles political pressures
A UN-backed court in Cambodia has started a landmark genocide trial of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders, whose brutal regime in the late 1970s killed nearly a quarter of the population.
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The presiding judge said Monday that suspects who weren’t fit to appear in court could watch the hearings on television in their nearby prison. Nuon Chea, who wore dark glasses and a black ski hat, later left the courtroom in an apparent fit of pique after speaking briefly of his unhappiness with the legal process.Skip to next paragraph
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Theary Seng, an activist who has helped victims’ groups file civil suits in the tribunal, said she welcomed the trial and was hopeful that it would shed light on the secretive regime. But she expressed frustration regarding the judge’s leniency toward Nuon Chea. “We just lost the most visible symbol of justice: his face,” when he walked out, she says.
The other suspects are Ieng Sary, the regime’s head of state, his wife, Ieng Thirith, a senior minister, and Khieu Samphan, the foreign minister. Pol Pot, the regime’s Paris-educated leader, died in a remote jungle camp in 1998.
The judges can hand down a maximum penalty of life in prison, as Cambodia doesn’t have the death penalty. Many Cambodians criticized the 19-year jail term for Kaing Guek Eav, the prison-camp director, which is currently under appeal as being too soft.
The tribunal is a Cambodian court with international aspects, a hybrid institution that was originally touted by the UN as a possible model for post-conflict justice. But slow progress and political tensions over its mandate have chipped away at its reputation.
Doubts have also surfaced over the complexity of staging a war-crimes tribunal based on both domestic and international laws. “That’s the tension in the court that has run through it and continually bubbles up,” says Alex Linton, who runs the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University.
Lawyers for Ieng Sary tried to highlight these ambiguities in a motion for his case to be dismissed for double jeopardy. In 1979, Ieng Sary and Pol Pot were convicted in absentia by a Vietnamese-run court in Phnon Penh and sentenced to death. That court was criticized as a Communist show trial. But lawyers argued Monday that the tribunal couldn’t arbitrarily ignore this ruling.
“Mr. Ieng Sary should not be tried twice for the same crime,” his American lawyer, Michael Karnavas, told the court.
Underscoring Cambodia’s blurred politics, Ieng Sary received a royal pardon in 1996 after he defected to Hun Sen’s government. Two years later, Hun Sen feted Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan at his house and said Cambodians should “dig a hole and bury the past,” according to Human Rights Watch. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, later backtracked and asked the UN to set up a joint war-crimes tribunal.