The Judges of the Trial Chamber enter the courtroom to pronounce the verdict in Case 002/01 on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.
The convictions of two former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity are an important step towards justice yet long overdue, rights groups said this week. On August 7th, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convicted Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, and sentenced them to life in prison. It is the first time that high-ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge regime have been convicted by an independent court and represents a critical step against impunity. While welcoming the verdict, rights groups also expressed deep concern over political interference, delays and corruption during the trials.
Khmer Rouge rule under the leadership of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and others resulted in the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians, more than one-quarter of the population. Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” died in 1998 after years of protection from Thailand and China.
Nuon Chea, the former second in command of the Khmer Rouge regime, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former Head of State, faced a number of charges, including the forced movement of the population from Phnom Penh and elsewhere, and the execution of soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic – the regime topped by the Khmer Rouge.
They were found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution, forced transfer, attacks against human dignity, enforced disappearances and extermination during forced movements of population in Cambodia from April 17th 1975 to December 1977. They were also found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution and extermination of former soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat Province. The ECCC trial judges also decided to order collective measures of reparation for Civil Parties yet they will not fund these reparation orders.
The ECCC also recognized that both Samphan and Chea have committed the majority of the above crimes in the framework of a common plan, to which they made a significant contribution.
“Although this decision is issued almost 40 years after the Khmer Rouge crimes, it is a historic victory for Civil Parties”, said Patrick Baudouin, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Honorary President and Civil Parties lawyer. “We hope this decision will contribute to the Cambodian society’s work towards sustainable peace and independent justice,”, he added.
“The decision issued by the Trial Chamber of the ECCC represents an important step against the impunity of former Khmer Rouge high-ranking officials. It is also a positive message for younger generations that these crimes cannot go unpunished,” said Latt Ky of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC).
The organizations welcome the decision to order collective reparations for victims, including permanent and mobile exhibitions or new chapters on Khmer Rouge crimes in teacher’s guidebooks. However, they expressed regret that the ECCC will not fund these reparation orders.
Khieu Samphan prepares to hear the verdict on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.
Almost 4,000 victims have been able to participate as Civil Parties in case 002/01, with rights as full parties to the case, including legal representation and opportunities to request investigative acts and call and question witnesses. Before the ECCC, no other international criminal tribunal trying crimes under international law had given victims a formal status during the proceedings.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that the convictions are too little, too late and do not make up for the fundamental failures of the Cambodian-controlled and United Nations-assisted Khmer Rouge tribunal. “The convictions of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are too little and too late to save the Khmer Rouge tribunal from being regarded as a failure,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The goal of justice for Khmer Rouge victims has been irrevocably tarnished by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political interference, the failure to bring more cases, long delays, and pervasive corruption. What should be a day of celebrating justice is instead a reminder of missed opportunities.”
The trial followed years of obstruction by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander. Many Khmer Rouge responsible for large-scale atrocities during the group’s rule from 1975-79 continue to live freely, some in the same communities in which they carried out mass killings, forced labor, and other abuses. Hun Sen has said he would rather see the court fail than take up more cases, raising concerns that he is protecting former Khmer Rouge fighters now in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Human Rights Watch also said that the trial barely scratched the surface of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge: “Cambodia is the country where the term ‘Killing Fields’ was coined, but this trial did not address how the Khmer Rouge systematically killed people it considered their enemies and dumped them in mass graves,” Adams said. “It is a sad indictment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal that after seven years and the expenditure of more than US$200 million, Cambodians now face the prospect that only three people will be held legally accountable for the destruction of their country,” Adams continued. “Men who ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of people are being allowed by Hun Sen and an indifferent international community to live out their lives in freedom, often in the same village or on the same street as their victims.”
At the direction of Hun Sen, government-installed Cambodian judges, prosecutors, and other court personnel have obstructed investigations and trials. The government did not require its members to provide evidence to the tribunal’s judicial investigation and trial proceedings. Serious corruption allegations affecting the proceedings have not been adequately investigated.
Cambodian judges and prosecutors have successfully blocked the arrest and indictment of five additional suspects whom UN prosecutors have named as responsible for serious crimes during the Khmer Rouge period. Hun Sen publicly said on multiple occasions that there should be no further trials.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director Rupert Abbott said that the long-awaited ruling is an ‘’important step towards justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge period and highlights the importance of addressing impunity.” However, he expressed concern that ‘’the earlier refusal of senior Cambodian government officials to give evidence, as well as allegations of political interference in other ECCC cases, is troubling and raises concerns around the fairness of the proceedings and respect for victims’ right to hear the full truth regarding the alleged crimes.’’ He said it was crucial to have fair and effective trials if the ECCC is to leave a lasting legacy which strengthens Cambodia’s very fragile judicial system and contributes towards ending the deep culture of impunity.
Amnesty also said that the ECCC must complete all of its cases in a timely and fair manner without political interference, which will require the support of the Cambodian government and the international community and said that much more must be done by the government of Cambodia to repair the harm suffered by victims.
Human Rights Watch stressed that donors and other key governments have failed to make continued support for the tribunal contingent on the end of political interference, cooperation from the Cambodian government in further investigations, and allowing further cases to be filed based on the evidence and professional judgment of independent judges and prosecutors.
“Instead of issuing statements congratulating the Khmer Rouge tribunal on its long overdue verdicts, Japan, the European Union, Australia, the US, and others should be focussing on justice for victims,” Adams said. “Are they going to be silent partners in Hun Sen’s manipulation of justice, or will they fight for victims and survivors to have a credible judicial process?” Adams asked.
The decision can be appealed within 30 days. The evidence collected during proceedings in this case (Case 002/01) will be usable for trial proceedings in Case 002/02 which targets the same accused. The substantial trial in Case 002/02 is expected to start before the end of this year.
The Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, at the end of the United States’ war in Indochina. Led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, they ruled the country until January 7th 1979, when Vietnam drove them out. Estimates suggest that as many as two million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed or died from disease, starvation, or forced labor during this period.