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Tribunal Official Faces Emotional Khmer Rouge Victims in California

Nicholas Koumjian, international prosecutor for the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. Courtesy photo of ECCC.
Nicholas Koumjian, international prosecutor for the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. Courtesy photo of ECCC.

The international prosecutor for the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal faced an emotional crowd of Cambodians in Long Beach, California, last week, as he sought to update them on the court’s progress.

The prosecutor, Nicholas Koumjian, had agreed to meet with the survivors of the Khmer Rouge to explain the tribunal’s proceedings and to hear their concerns with the court’s process.

But many said they felt the court’s slow pace and limited scope were not bringing them a sense of justice.

“You say it’s​ slow, and you say it’s too little,” Koumjian told the group. “I would agree, yes, thousands of people should have been prosecuted, but that’s not possible. If you say it’s late, I agree. It should have happened 30 years ago, but that’s not possible. Now we have a decision to make. The clock is ticking: Khieu Samphan is 83, and Nuon Chea is 88. Do we do nothing? Do we walk away, or do we push on and try to finish and have justice for these remaining crimes that occurred?”

Nou Leakhena, executive director of the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, who has helped Cambodian-American victims of the Khmer Rouge take part in the tribunal process, said the court has not done a good job of reaching out to people and explaining itself. The court’s concept of justice is not the same as the victims’, she said.

Some victims simply want an apology from the leaders on trial, she said. “And that is not going to happen. They will never apologize.”

Koumjian told the survivors that the former leaders have refused to take the blame for the atrocity crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of the regime, for example, has blamed the killings on a “Vietnamese agent.” That runs counter to his own words in a documentary about him, “Enemies of the People,” and to the evidence, Koumjian said.

“He’s absolutely not credible,” Koumjian said. “He refuses to take real responsibility for what occurred.”

At last week’s event, a Cambodian man from Long Beach rose to speak, saying he was disappointed the trial had taken so long and done so little. “They never indicted anybody else, except those two or three of them,” he said. So he stopped following the news from the court. “I said, hey, that’s it, I don’t want to listen.”

A woman named Prum Rath, also from Long Beach, said she would not be happy with a mere life sentence for the aging leaders. That would not replace her lost family members, she said. “I’m happy, but it’s little,” she said. “They are comfortably detained with food, a good place to sleep—but for my family, they didn’t have rice to eat, and cried out with bloody tears, and cried out to die. Before my brother died, he was asking for rice, but he starved. My sister was hungry, my father cried out, begging for rice to eat. They did not have it, until they died. My mother asked for water, no one gave her any, until she died. For [the defendants] they have everything, not difficulties, in a lifetime in prison.”

Koumjian sought to assuage the concerns of the survivors, saying Cambodia has been able to conduct a tribunal where other places, such as Syria, have not, and may never. “At least this court, I hope, will bring some recognition of the suffering Cambodia went through,” he said.