With five leaders awaiting trial at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, former cadre and other officials say the court could have a hard time building cases against them. Not everyone agrees.
“How can [evidence] be found?” asked Sok Pheap, a former Khmer Rouge division commander, in an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer at his office in Poipet district, Banteay Meanchey province.
Now a major general in the army, following a defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, Sok Pheap is a deputy chief on the Cambodian side of a joint border committee with Thailand.
“Who were the killers?” he asked. “I didn’t know; I was the soldier in the forest, and when I came back home also my relatives had gone missing, killed, and most of villagers had died.”
The five jailed senior leaders—Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Kaing Kek Iev—are all facing various atrocity crimes charges and are being held in detention. Kaing Kek Iev, better known as Duch, will have the first day in court, March 30, in what is expected to be the easiest case to try.
Directly linking other leaders to the killings might be harder than it seems, and have unintended consequences, former rebels said.
Long Norin, the ex-aid to former foreign minister Ieng Sary, told VOA Khmer that trying leaders who were not responsible for the killing will cause people to feel unstable.
He gave as an example Khieu Samphan, who was the nominal head of the Khmer Rouge but who Long Norin says held no real power.
“Those who killed their fathers are still free and alive today,” he said. “That’s what I’m concerned about. Why are they not arrested? Khieu Samphan…not even a chicken would he dare to kill.”
Long Narin said the tribunal won’t be able to find justice for the deaths caused by the Khmer Rouge and will only impair development of the country.
Former Khmer Rouge division commander Meas Muth, who experts say could face indictment if the tribunal widens its prosecution, said the Khmer Rouge should not be blamed for killings. If the courts are legitimate, he said, anyone who was guilty should be arrested.
“For instance, the skull bones that have been displayed: the court must know which skull belonged to a person killed by the Vietnamese, which belonged to a person killed by B-52 bombers, or any of the Khmers who did not die by the Khmer Rouge.”
The Khmer Rouge tribunal’s international prosecutor, Robert Petite, has said more indictments should be investigated, a recommendation opposed by his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang. The Pre-Trial Chamber has yet to decide on whether more people will be investigated.
However, Tep Kunnal, a former aid to Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge ambassador to the UN, said the tribunal law passed by the National Assembly specifies that only senior leaders of the regime will be prosecuted.
He said he supported whatever the UN and Cambodian positions of further indictments turn out to be, as both sides would be seeking to find solutions to tribunal problems.
“In peace-building like we have today, and joint development of the country like we have today,” he said, “one would not do anything backward; one would take Cambodia as a sample for other places in solving every issue.”
Tep Kunnal would not comment on what difficulties the court might face finding documents to link senior leaders to the killing fields.
However, lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, said Khmer Rouge cases that have been buried for 30 years could be difficult to find evidence and witnesses for. Those who know the most are former Khmer Rouge cadre, he said, and unlikely to testify against their supporters.
“There are two issues in the Khmer Rouge trial,” he said. “One: to find evidence that the crime happened, and at this point, that’s not hard for the Khmer Rouge tribunal. But because our Khmer Rouge court does not charge the perpetrator—we charge those most responsible—it may be hard to find evidence or witnesses that can say, ‘Oh, the most responsible person is that name, A, or that name, B.’”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has given more than 600,000 documents to the court, disagrees.
“There are many that want to be witnesses, no one is afraid,” he said. “The number of documents is not important, but wisdom to understand the story, to understand the history, and the legal aspects, is important. And that’s the role of the court.”
Many documents exist that former Khmer Rouge cadre are unaware of, even those linking the killings to their orders, he said. Skulls can now be verified through scientific experts and DNA, and analyzed for cause of death.
“It’s the obligation of the lawyers to make historical documents into evidence,” he added, “and it’s the obligation of the courts to connect these documents to the crimes that occurred.”