By MARK MACKINNON
Survivors of Cambodia’s genocidal 1970s regime despair of ever seeing leaders who ordered mass murders stand trial
Ieng Thirith, infamous in life as the “First Lady” of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime, died on Saturday. Unlike the vast majority of the Khmer Rouge’s estimated two million victims, she spent her final hours surrounded by her family. She was given a Buddhist funeral, something that was forbidden under the avowedly atheist government she served as a senior cabinet minister and close confidante of Pol Pot.
The 83-year-old also died before a verdict could be delivered in the case against her on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. It’s just the latest blow to an international justice movement that has seen its efforts repeatedly flouted by world leaders, and that has proved painstakingly slow when there is an accused in the dock.
Ms. Ieng was arrested and charged in 2007 by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The ECCC is an ongoing and rocky experiment in blending international and local judicial systems while seeking to bring leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice for their 1970s reign of terror, which left a quarter of the country’s population dead.
The tribunal has been hampered for years by interference from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre. Earlier this year, a request from the ECCC for the arrest of three additional Khmer Rouge suspects was ignored by the Cambodian police, who said they were following orders from the Prime Minister. A senior police officer warned at the time that further arrests could lead to “a breakup of the country.”
Now the tribunal has seen its credibility further drained by the spectacle of senior Khmer Rouge figures dying off before verdicts are reached.
Ms. Ieng – who was influential both as minister for social affairs and as Pol Pot’s sister-in-law – was controversially released by the tribunal in 2012 because of her advanced dementia. Her husband, Ieng Sary, who had served as the regime’s foreign affairs minister, was one of Ms. Ieng’s co-defendants before the ECCC. He died of a heart attack in 2013.
“When the ECCC began, survivors had reservations about whether the court would really be able to arrest Khmer Rouge leaders. So when [Ieng Thirith and Ieng Sary] were arrested, they felt they were really getting justice,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which compiles evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes.
“Now that they are dead, people are beginning to question the process. They wanted to hear them speak, to explain what they did. Because knowledge is justice, and hope for justice is fading away.”
Politics and molasses-slow prosecutions have also plagued the main International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has seen member countries such as South Africa refuse to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir despite long-standing war crimes and genocide charges against him. Charges of crimes against humanity levelled at Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, connected to the ethnic violence that followed the country’s 2007 election, fell apart last year amid allegations of witness intimidation and bribery.
The most high-profile individual yet brought before a modern international tribunal, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, spent five years on the stand before he died in 2006 of a heart attack. Again, while his arrest was a victory for the concept of international justice, Mr. Milosevic died without hearing a verdict on the charges against him.
In its early days, the ECCC was hailed as a success. The presence of United Nations lawyers and judges gave the process legitimacy. The presence of ordinary Cambodians in the courtroom provided victims the catharsis of confronting those who had once tormented them, the power imbalance finally reversed.
The first case the court dealt with was the simplest because the perpetrator, Kang Kek Iew – a one-time schoolteacher who went by the nom de guerre Comrade Duch while he ran a notorious prison in the centre of Phnom Penh – acknowledged his guilt. The only question for the court to decide was whether co-operation with the tribunal, and his defence that he had only been following orders while overseeing mass executions and torture inside the prison, merited a reduced sentence. Comrade Duch is now serving life in prison.
Case 002 on the ECCC’s docket saw four much more senior figures tried on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity: Pol Pot’s “Brother No. 2” Nuon Chea; the regime’s formal head of state Khieu Samphan; and Mr. Ieng and Ms. Ieng.
Last year, the ECCC had a much-needed success when Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were each convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. The two men are appealing the verdict, while simultaneously standing trial on additional charges of genocide and other war crimes.
But the deaths of Ms. Ieng and her husband, as well as the ECCC’s inability to arrest other top Khmer Rouge figures, leave the court’s future in doubt after Case 002 finally ends. After nine years of work, and some $200-million (U.S.) spent, will three convictions be seen as appropriate justice for the Khmer Rouge era?
Mr. Chhang of the Documentation Centre says victims are deeply divided about whether the ECCC should continue its efforts. Many still want to see the individuals who committed crimes against them brought to justice. Others accept the government’s argument that, in a country where tens of thousands of former Khmer Rouge members are still alive and sometimes playing important roles in society, the ECCC could provoke civil strife by going too far.
“Many survivors are asking us, ‘What is the ECCC for? Who is it for?’ ” Mr. Chhang said. “It’s a difficult question for us to answer.”
The Globe and Mail, Inc.
Reprinted from Globe and Mail, in the “World Insider” section.