Guilty verdicts in the genocide trial of Pol Pot's senior henchmen has brought the curtain down on the main act of a controversial tribunal that has lasted more than a decade, cost more than $300 million and is finally nearing an end.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan can appeal their latest convictions for genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and there are still trials pending against four lower ranked Khmer Rouge cadre.
However, the appeals process is expected to take less than a year and further cases are unlikely to be heard amid speculation the local judges at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) don’t want to pursue officials ranked outside of Pol Pot’s inner circle.
Those most responsible
Helen Jarvis, tribunal advisor and former head of the Victims’ Unit, said a successful prosecution of genocide in Case 0002/02 had clearly defined precedents, including genocide, enslavement and rape inside a forced marriage, as opposed to an arranged marriage.
“For years we’ve talked about genocide in Cambodia and it’s often been said that nothing could ever be proved in court and today we have a clear statement, a clear conviction by the trial chamber,” she said.
The tribunal’s initial remit was to prosecute those ‘most responsible’ for the deaths of between 1.7 million and 2.3 million people, the obliteration of Cambodian culture and the persecution of those who survived Khmer Rouge rule.
"Most responsible" was defined as those who sat on the central and standing committees — essentially Pol Pot’s Cabinet — from April 1975 to January 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion ended the tyranny.
Civil war continued for another two decades. It was only then that negotiations could begin for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, the ECCC was established and secured its first conviction in Case 001 in 2010 against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who ran the S-21 extermination center in Phnom Penh.
Costs and other convictions
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were already serving life sentences when the genocide verdict was announced. They were each given an additional life sentence and Judge Nil Nonn ordered the two life sentences be merged into one.
Others, including Pol Pot, his national defense minister Son Sen, and military chief Ta Mok died before they could be tried. Former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, who served as minister for social affairs, died after they were charged with genocide and detained by the ECCC.
“I think we’ve done the job that needed to be done and I think the objectives of setting up the ECCC have been met,” Jarvis said. “Of course there’s still going to be an appeal so it’s not ‘The End’ but there’s quite a lot of clarity I think.”
There have been complaints about costs to secure convictions against just three people and political interference by the Cambodian government.
Vun Em and her family were typical of Pol Pot’s victims. They lived in a village in Kampong Cham province where she grew up in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge while contending with the communists on-going civil war.
“I think the tribunal was a good result, but for me I think it take too long a time and spending a lot of money,” she said, adding $300 million to secure convictions against three people was expensive.
However, this paled when compared with the atrocities committed by the regime.
“They do so much bad to the people in Cambodia, including my family. They separate everyone from each other, they killed too many people, too much labor during their time. Not enough food too eat, sickness, distrust, unsafe, also forced marriage,” she said.
A further four lower ranked cadre have been charged in regards to genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions in Cases 003 and 004. But stark divisions have emerged between international and Cambodian prosecutors over whether to proceed.
Charges against a former district chief, Im Chaem, were dropped after the court ruled it did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute her.
Critics claimed this was because Hun Sen did not want to prosecute outside the highest levels because it might damage his own standing within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which is comprised of several former Khmer Rouge cadre.
Meanwhile, final decisions are pending on whether to pursue naval commander Meas Muth, the deputy secretary in the regime’s central zone Ao An, and Yim Tith, a former mid-level commander turned wealthy businessman.
Jarvis added that only the courts could decide whether or not to proceed with those prosecutions.