Will Cambodia's Court Survive To Try Khmer Rouge?
Will Cambodia's Court Survive To Try Remaining Khmer Rouge?
Year Zero. April 17th, 1975. The Khmer Rouge soldiers enter Phnom Penh. Young men in black pyjama’s and chequered scarves walk the streets with a stealthy calm.
Within three days Phnom Penh’s entire population had been forced to leave the city. Nearly one million people were marched South, West and North to labour camps across Cambodia. The young, the weak and the sick were left by the side of the road where they fell, the first victims of Pol Pots genocidal regime.
By 1979, when the Vietnamese Army invaded, up to two million Cambodians had perished. They were killed by the Khmer Rouge’s drastic attempt to re-invent Cambodia as an agrarian society, to rid the land of bourgeoisie and intellectual influence, and to instigate Communism in its most heinous form. (Image: A victim of the Khmer Rouge.)
Following the Vietnamese liberation, Cambodia fell into more than a decade of civil war, and in 1997 requested aid from the UN in prosecuting the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, most of whom still roamed free across the land, some repentant for their crimes, others fighting from their stronghold on the border with Thailand.
In 2001 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was created (known as the ECCC), a joint UN –Cambodia project to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
In 2003 it was agreed the ECCC would be made up of a combination of Cambodian and International staff, the first hybrid court of its kind - a Cambodian court subject to international standards. As the website boasts ‘It will provide a role model for court operations in Cambodia’.
The court officially started operating in 2006, and now nearing the end of 2008, the people of Cambodia are still waiting for justice to be served.
Oung Heng, 56, is one of few who still have patience for the beleaguered court.
"I think we have a very bitter history and it is very sad. We hope that nothing like this ever happens again in the future. The ECCC is a consolation for the survivors and we have to help them seek peace. It is a heavy lesson for our country to learn but very important"
The ECCC has been plagued by problems, some unavoidable, others self created.
Of most pressing concern for many is the age of the detained - five in custody and not one younger than sixty. When Cambodia's life expectancy is still just 59 years, all of those in detention are decidedly old men.
There are warning signs that have people worried. Seventy seven year old Khieu Samphan, former head of state, was hospitalized in May following a minor stroke, and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 82 was hospitalized this year when medics discovered blood in his urine. There are very real fears afoot that some of the detained will not live to stand trial, and escape into death like their comrade Pol Pot in 1998.
The Court has also been plagued by allegations of kickbacks and corruption, a problem endemic to Cambodian courts, but a real embarrassment for a UN institution.
In mid 2007 an audit of the court was commissioned and undertaken by an independent international auditing firm. A UN investigation was also launched into the alleged corruption cases.
Although the investigation has concluded the results have still not been released, and public confidence in the court is now widely threatened.
“"I don't trust the courts here, I would do anything to avoid them.” says Heng. Justice is rarely served and you only end up paying a great deal of money. Everyone knows taking your problem to court will not get it solved ".
Hopes were high this year that the first trial would begin in September, starting with the trial of former Tuol Sleng prison chief sixty five year old Kaing Guek Eav - or ‘Duch’ as he is more commonly known. Duch oversaw the torture of more than 20,000 inmates at Tuol Sleng prison, also referred to as S-21, a former elementary school in the capital.
But appeals by Duch and others for release from pre-trial detention has stalled the start of his trial, as have requests for the translation of official court documents from Khmer and English into French for Duch’s lawyer - a process which has taken three months.
The victims of the Khmer Rouge are losing their patience. Nuon Sapan, 36, lost five members of his extended family to the regime.
"I think many people are beginning to question if these trials will ever get off the ground. So much money has been spent I think a lot of people are re-considering the necessity for 'justice''. Maybe all these millions of dollars would have been better spent on development, which would surely lead to improved courts in the future anyway"
And the ECCCs greatest problem of all is money. The court was initially granted funding of $60 million dollars from the Cambodian Government, the UN and donor countries. The court was expected to be in operation three years, and would be dissolved upon completion of the trials.
But in early 2008 the Court admitted it was near bankruptcy and requested extra funding of $30 million. On top of this the court projects that to complete its work it will require an extra $80 million over the coming years, though no official request has been made.
The extra $30 million has been granted, in drips and drabs, but it is unclear how much more the international community will invest in the project which, after eight years of planning and nearly three full years of operation, has yet to hear a single case.
Now that so much money has been spent the court cannot be abandoned. ECCC officials say the first trial should take place by February of 2009, but skeptics in Phnom Penh scoff at this hope, and cynicism is beginning to spread into further reaches of society.
As the months pass five old men lose a few more hairs from their grey heads, and sleep a little less soundlessly each night. The time is coming for them to face their crimes against humanity - but will they still be living when the court is ready for them?
Eleanor Ainge Roy is a New Zealander working in Cambodia for the English language daily The Phnom Penh Post.