Convicted Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan will face his final appeal at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal next week in what could be the last case taken up by the hybrid court tasked with investigating crimes committed by the brutal regime.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), will convene a Supreme Court Chamber from August 16 to 19 where Khieu Samphan, head of state under the Khmer Rouge, wants the court to overthrow his convictions for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Khieu Samphan’s defense team has asked the Supreme Court Chamber to reverse the life imprisonment conviction or have the sentence reduced to a shorter prison term, but the civil parties representing the Khmer Rouge victims want to see the highest court uphold the lower court’s verdict.
The hybrid tribunal – consisting of both Cambodian and foreign court officials – has been racked by uncertainty as most other case files at the court have made no progress or are caught up in procedural grey areas.
The only other convictions at the trial have been that of Nuon Chea, who was a co-defendant with Khieu Samphan, and Kaing Guek Eav, well known as Duch and who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where thousands were tortured and murdered. Nuon Chea died in 2019 and Duch passed away at a Phnom Penh hospital last year.
While events at the court are rarely reported in local media – with the possible exception of a conviction or a death – news of Khieu Samphan receiving a COVID-19 vaccine has riled up some survivors and observers.
Cambodia has so far had a successful, and ongoing, vaccination campaign, with around 81 percent of the targeted 10 million citizens having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This has been in part due to the steady stream of vaccines from China and, more recently, from Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.
The vaccine drive also includes some of Cambodia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons where COVID-19 outbreaks were underreported and hard to control. More than 95 percent of Phnom Penh’s adult residents were vaccinated as a priority because a recent outbreak was centered in the capital. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal falls within the jurisdiction of the Phnom Penh Municipality.
Neth Pheaktra, a spokesperson for the tribunal, said Khieu Samphan was vaccinated like any other Cambodian citizen and was in line with the ECCC’s established healthcare standards for detainees.
“We know some [Khmer Rouge] victims are not happy with the fact that the accused has been vaccinated and provided with other health care and food, but this is just the common practice by international standards,” he said. “The aim of the ECCC establishment is not to take revenge against anyone.”
But, Khmer Rouge survivors are not impressed by the court’s reasoning.
Matt Nou is a resident of Pursat province on the country’s western border with Thailand. The 58-year-old farmer is just not convinced that Khieu Samphan should be inoculated before the rest of the population.
“I am angry because during the Pol Pot time, [Khieu Samphan] didn’t have doctors to take care of the people,” Matt Nou said last week.
"Now, even though he is in his cell, he has been well taken care of by doctors; he was even vaccinated already,” she said, adding that she was forced to do hard labor with no access to healthcare under the Khmer Rouge.
Matt Nou said she and her husband were waiting for their chance to get inoculated but had not heard from local officials so far. While Phnom Penh was the focus of the early vaccination drive, the campaign has moved to provinces, especially border provinces like Pursat which are seeing a surge of returning Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand and have tested positive for the highly virulent Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.
Phnom Penh resident Poch Kri lost three of his seven siblings during the Khmer Rouge’s nearly four-year rule of Cambodia. He has heard that Khieu Samphan has been afforded luxuries like a television.
“He is luckier now than me during the Khmer Rouge time,” Poch Kri said. “He has been well taken care of and I heard that he even has TV although he is in his cell and can see the same as whatever we can see outside.”
Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Center of Cambodia which documents and archives material linked to the Khmer Rouge, is skeptical of the disparity in treatment given to survivors and the regime's senior leaders held in detention.
But, it also showed that Cambodians could rise above how the Khmer Rouge treated them in the 1970s, he added.
“Even though the guilty treated ordinary Cambodians horribly, today when we give the guilty health and other humane care, we are not only proving how horrible they were but also how much Cambodians can rise above their evil,” he wrote in an email to VOA on Monday.