Khmer Rouge tribunal prepares for first, and possibly only, verdict in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge tribunal is set to deliver its first verdict Monday in the case of former torture chief Duch. It may also be the last verdict at a court beset by allegations of corruption and political interference

Heng Sinith/AP
Cambodian visitors listen to a guide as they tour the former Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison now known as the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday. The UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal is scheduled to deliver its verdict on Monday, July 26, against Kaing Guek Eav, better know as 'Duch,' the Khmer Rouge prison chief accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture.

In a widely hailed victory for international justice, a war crimes tribunal in Cambodia is set to deliver its first verdict Monday in the case of a former Khmer Rouge torture chief. But some observers fear he may end up being the only regime leader to face justice in a cash-strapped court beset by allegations of political interference and corruption.

Kaing Guek Eav, known by his Khmer Rouge alias “Duch,” oversaw the torture and killing of about 15,000 prisoners during the regime’s 1975-1979 rule. His trial has played an important role in a nationwide “healing process” that is helping Cambodians come to terms with a regime that killed as many as 2 million people, says Reach Sambath, a spokesman for the United Nations-backed court.

Officials say almost 28,000 Cambodians visited the tribunal during the 72-day trial, and millions more watched proceedings on television or listened to radio broadcasts.

Duch alone has admitted responsibility for his role in the killings. But Duch was not a member of the ruling clique, unlike the four additional defendants still to be tried.

Government pressure

Some observers warn that current government officials who were once Khmer Rouge cadres could step up efforts to prevent damaging information from being revealed during in the next trial. David Chandler, a historian and former US diplomat to Cambodia, told the Monitor in November that he would not be surprised if Duch was the only suspect to face justice.

Already the government has shown reluctance to participate in investigations. Cambodian officials said it is unnecessary for government members to comply with court requests to be questioned as witnesses. Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would prefer to see the court fall apart than allow charges to come against a handful of additional suspects, as the prosecution intends.

Those statements, and other less obvious tactics, put extreme pressure on Cambodian court officials who must consider their employment prospects once the tribunal wraps up.

“In the end, the ability of individual Cambodian actors to resist interference by senior political figures and still maintain a position within the Cambodian legal system is limited,” the Open Society Justice Institute (OSJI) warned in a report this month. While OSJI said “political interference was not an important factor in the conduct of the Duch trial,” the watchdog indicated that pressure from government officials could undermine future trials, which promise to be far more politically charged.

Donors hesitant over interference, corruption

Such controversies do not strengthen the confidence of donors, upon whom the court depends for its survival. The tribunal, which has already cost about $100 million, is chronically short of cash. It was bailed out most recently by Japan, which announced early this month that it would provide $2.3 million to pay salaries of national staff.

The hybrid court places Cambodian staff alongside international staff, the latter of whom are directly employed by the United Nations and have not faced payroll troubles.

The tribunal is also blighted by unresolved allegations that Cambodian court employees were forced to pay kickbacks in order to obtain and keep their jobs.

Aging defendants

A further worry is that the painfully slow pace of justice may prevent further trials. No date has been set for the trial of top-level Khmer Rouge officials Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, and Nuon Chea. All four suspects are elderly and have health problems. There are concerns that they may not live to face trial, particularly if Cambodian politicians engage in delay tactics.

The case against them became even more complicated in December when the court laid charges of genocide, which stemmed from the slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims. Both Mr. Chandler and Philip Short, who wrote the definitive biography of deceased Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, say the charges were dubious and would only serve to delay proceedings.

Short argues that the minority ethnic communities were targeted for political reasons, as was much of the majority ethnic Khmer population. In an e-mail interview, Mr. Short called the charges “misconceived and unhelpful.” He argues that the suspects already faced charges of crimes against humanity, which would be much easier to prove.

The court’s former lead prosecutor, Robert Petit, has also expressed worry that the remaining suspects may escape justice.

“That’s one of the things that keeps me awake at night,” he says.

(Editor's note: This article originally mistated the duration of the trial and the number of visitors to the court.)


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