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Experts See Expanded Scope in Impending Khmer Rouge Trial

As the Khmer Rouge tribunal prepares for the second and final phase of a trial against two jailed leaders of the regime, observers say they are hopeful the case will reveal more truths about the movement and provide some sense of justice for victims.

The impending trial phase for Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, officially known as Case 002/02, will deal with crimes such as genocide, forced marriage, internal party purges and others and will be expanded in scope compared to the first phase of the trial, which dealt mostly with the forced exodus of Phnom Penh as the regime took over the country in April 1975. The next phase of the trial will fully get under way later this year.

The first phase dealt with a limited number of crimes, for the sake of expediency, said John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who has written a book about the tribunal.

“Case 002/02 deals with a somewhat broader set of alleged crimes,” he said. “Although no trial could realistically deal with all of the high-level crimes committed in Democratic Kampuchea, the court will at least have covered a reasonably representative sample of the major types of crimes alleged.”

Most important for the UN-backed court now is to conduct “an efficient and transparent trial…which in some respects is the most significant trial that will face the court,” he said. “This trial provides the best opportunity to provide a broad account of various forms of Khmer Rouge brutality and thus also to give a representative form of justice to the myriad survivors who suffered from similar abuses.”

Ciorciari said he expects many victims to welcome official judicial recognition of some of the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea and the convictions that have occurred to date. However, he said, “Many survivors will be disappointed that only some crimes and only some suspects are being tried.”

Beth Van Schaack, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, at Stanford University, told VOA Khmer that despite what many victims may want to see for a particular outcome, “a judgment based upon unfair proceedings will reflect poorly on the process and undermine the symbolic value of a conviction.”

“In addition, the [tribunal] should continue to strive to ensure that victims can play a meaningful role in the proceedings, in terms of bearing witness to their own suffering and the suffering of their loved ones,” she said. “The judgment also has to be carefully written so it will withstand legal scrutiny.”

The second phase of the trial will reflect more experiences of victims, she said, due to its scope. “Evidence of acts of persecution against particular groups, forced labor, sexual violence, and political purges will now take center stage.”

That includes genocide, an important element of the case and that period in history, she said. “Many people speak of the ‘Cambodian genocide.’ However, genocide has a very specific definition under international law that does not include the killing or mistreatment of a person because of their membership in a political, economic, or social group. The definition of genocide only includes harm against national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.”

Evidence from the first phase will be entered as evidence in the second phase of the proceedings, which will help hasten the trial, she said. That will help those victims anxious to see a conclusion to the case.

However, there are critics who worry that no matter the outcome, the court has failed in its mission to provide a sense of justice to Khmer Rouge victims.

Nou Leakhena , executive director of the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, which has helped Khmer Rouge victims with court proceedings, said the court could have done better. “Tribunal delays, allegations of corruption, and reports of mismanagement have contributed to an overriding sense that justice has not fully been served,” she said.

Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and author of a book on the regime, said the next phase of the trial will likely be more pleasing to scholars and historians than victims.

“It’s very little, very late and it’s best they could hope for,” he said. “That said, I don’t think it satisfies anyone.”