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Cambodia's glacial 'justice'

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COMMENTS

21 December 2009 14:29

Given that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, officially the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), has now been in formal operation for three and a half years, observers with only a casual interest in Cambodia may be surprised to learn that no verdict has yet been brought down against any of the five defendants in custody.

The trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the director of the S-21 Tuol Sleng extermination centre where more than 14,000 'enemies' of the Khmer Rouge regime were executed after prolonged torture, and which began in March, finally came to an end in November. But it will not be until early 2010 that a verdict is handed down.

This leaves four other defendants awaiting trial: Nuon Chea, the Pol Pot regime's chief ideologue; Khieu Samphan, the regime's chief of state; Ieng Sary, the regime's foreign minister; and Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary's wife and minister for social affairs. These defendants are to be tried for crimes against humanity. And now it has been announced by the ECCC that Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan will also be indicted for genocide in relation to the persecution of Cambodia's Muslim Cham community and the resident Vietnamese community.

So it could be argued that there has been progress of a sort, but this glacial pattern should probably be judged against other facts that have received far too little attention.

The first of these is that the four remaining defendants, who are all in poor health and in their late seventies or early eighties, are unlikely to be brought to trial before 2011 — indeed, some suggest the date will be 2012. It is therefore quite possible that they will not survive to go before the court.

More to the point, hopes that the ECCC might show itself capable of carrying out a wide-ranging prosecution of leading Pol Pot officials seem to have vanished. Efforts by the UN-backed international prosecutor to indict additional leading regime figures have been blocked by the Cambodian prosecutor and by the Cambodian investigating judge on the tribunal. This has taken place at a time when Prime Minister Hun Sen has several times publicly declared his opposition to the ECCC expanding its prosecutorial reach.

In short, the fears of those who doubted that the ECCC would do much more than address the crimes of the Pol Pot regime in a symbolic fashion appear realised. In this regard, it's worth remembering the words of Philip Short, the author of 'Pol Pot: The Anatomy of a Nightmare', when speaking in Phnom Penh in January 2007, he said:

It's (the ECCC) heavily symbolic and won't have much to do with justice...It will produce verdicts which will delineate the KR leadership as having been a small group and nothing to do with the present regime.

Implicit in Short's comments is the undeniable fact that the present regime has many members who were themselves officials during the Khmer Rouge regime. This includes Hun Sen himself, though no evidence has been found of his personal involvement in atrocities. There are others in high places about whom there is more cause for doubt.

But as matters now stand, and with the ECCC functioning as it does, it seems fair to judge that the wily Hun Sen has achieved what he always said he wanted to do, 'to bury the past'.

Photo by Flickr user dbz885, used under a Creative Commons license.