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Limits of Tribunal Stir Worries in Victims

The failure of the Khmer Rouge tribunal to investigate many atrocity sites across the country could lead to dissatisfaction among victims, thousands of whom have signed up to be a part of an upcoming trial, court monitors say.

Tribunal judges have said they will investigate 50 sites in 16 provinces, including 13 detention centers for an upcoming case—locations that fall well short of the number of sites where atrocities are documented, and where victims have come forward to complain.

Investigating judges are preparing Case No. 002, pursuing a trial for Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Kaing Kek Iev, or Duch, for atrocity crimes.

Thousands of victims have come forward as witnesses and civil party complainants for a case that promises to be much more complicated than the single trial against Duch, which wrapped up in October.

Tribunal monitors say the decision to investigate only 50 sites will leave many of the complainants out of the process, potentially harming the UN-backed court’s mandate to help the country reconcile with its brutal past.

The Documentation Center has identified 388 atrocity cites containing 19,733 mass graves, as well as 196 prisons. A court that fails to investigation many of the sites will fail to find the kind of truth some Cambodians expect out of the tribunal, observers say.

“So we question: in the other four or five provinces and towns [not to be investigated], the regime didn’t occur?” said Latt Ky, who monitors the tribunal for the rights group Adhoc. “People in those areas were not disappointed, have not suffered from torture or killing, or what?”

Adhoc has spent a lot of resources educating people across the country on the court and its processes and encouraging them to participate, he said. If the court is slow to recognize their testimony or statuses as civil party complainants, that could pose a problem, he said.

Long Panhavuth, a court monitor for the Cambodian Justice Initiative, said some complainants will be turned down when an investigation is not conducted in their area.

“The reason that they will not be recognized as civil party complainants must be clearly explained, publicly, in language that is understandable and acceptable,” he said, adding that such victims could still have a role to play and receive services from the court’s Victims Unit.

The tribunal considers a victim to be anyone who has suffered physical, psychological or material harm as a direct consequence of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge when it was in power. Civil parties have the right to choose legal representation, to request the investigation of alleged crimes, to question witnesses and the accused, and to request the court to takes measures to address their safety, dignity and privacy.

Still, the nature of compensation and redress for the victims has yet to be decided, even as the tribunal approaches Case No. 002, expected early this year.

“The tribunal is the court of the Cambodian people,” court spokesman Reach Sambath said. “No other court in the world can do like we are doing.”

Nou Kassie, an officer of the Victims Unit, said even victims who don’t become a civil party can file a complaint and participate in the historic process. With judges expected to close investigations in Case No. 002 in coming days, a deadline for such complaints is fast approaching.

For now, people like Sum Rithy, 57, who repaired motorcycles for the Khmer Rouge, await their chance to participate.

Sum Rithy said he saw many crimes enacted by cadre of the regime, seeing with his own eyes thousands killed. He would regret, he said, being unable to act as a witness in the upcoming case.

“No matter who you are, a PhD, an intellectual, a professor—I must confront them,” he said. “I will not be afraid.”

“First, I question, when you held power, why did you kill Khmer? Your own nation?” he said. “Second, if you are part of mankind, why did you arrest and starve people and kill them and make them live in suffering?”