PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The international court convened in Cambodia to judge the Khmer Rouge for its brutal 1970s rule ended its work Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years to convict just three men of crimes after the regime caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.
The U.N.-assisted tribunal denied Khieu Samphan’s appeal in its final session. He was the last leader of the Khmer Rouge government which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. After he was convicted in 2018 for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, he was reaffirmed by the tribunal.
Numerous ordinary Cambodians gathered to witness the end of a tribunal that sought to bring justice, accountability, and explanations to the crimes. Many of the attendees to Thursday’s session were survivors of the Khmer Rouge terror and Chum Mey, as well as Bou Meng and Chum Mey survivors who gave evidence over the years at the tribunal.
Khieu Samphan sat in a wheelchair, wearing a white windbreaker, and a mask to his face, and listened to the proceedings via headphones.
He was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his trial defense, denied having real decision-making powers when the Khmer Rouge carried out a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society, causing Cambodians’ deaths from execution, starvation and inadequate medical care. Invasion from Vietnam, a neighboring communist country, forced it from power in 1979.
“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,”Khieu Samuelphan made his last appeal to the court last January. “I will die always remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die seeing that I am alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than by my actual deeds as an individual.”
His appeal claimed that the court made mistakes in legal procedures and interpretation, and acted unfairly. He raised objections to more then 1,800 points.
However, the court noted that Khieu Samphan’s appeal did not directly challenge the facts of the case. It rejected nearly all arguments made by Khieu Samanthaphan, acknowledged an error and reversed its ruling on a minor count. The court stated that it considered the vast majority of Khieu’s arguments. “unfounded,”And that’s just the beginning. “alternative interpretations of the evidence.”
Thursday’s ruling makes little practical difference. Khieu Samphan, 91, is already serving a second life sentence for his 2014 conviction in connection with crimes against humanity involving forced transfers and disappearances.
The court ordered Khieu Samanthaphan, who was detained in 2007, to be returned the specially constructed jail where they had been kept.
His co-defendant Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2 leader and chief ideologist was convicted twice and sentenced to life. Nuon Chea, 93, died in 2019,
The tribunal’s only other conviction was that of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where roughly 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Duch was convicted of crimes versus humanity, murder and torture in 2010 and died in 2020, while serving a lifetime sentence.
The Khmer Rouge’s real chief, Pol Pot, escaped justice. In 1998, he died in the jungle at 72 years old while his remnants were fighting their final battles in the guerrilla warfare they started after losing power.
The trials of Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the former Social Affairs Minister, were not completed. Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, died in 2013. Ieng Thirith his wife, the former Social Affairs Minister, was declared unfit for trial in 2011.
Four other suspects, middle-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution because of a split among the tribunal’s jurists.
In a hybrid arrangement, Cambodian jurists and international jurists were paired at each stage. A majority of the case’s participants had to consent for it to move forward. The court used French-style procedures to bring the four defendants to trial. However, the international investigators recommended they be tried. After Hun Sen, the Cambodian Prime Minister, declared that there would no further prosecutions and claimed that they could cause unrest, the Cambodian partners refused to agree.
Hun Sen himself was a middle-ranking commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party share similar backgrounds. His political control was strengthened by his alliances with former Khmer Rouge commanders.
After its active work, the tribunal, which was formerly called the Extraordinary Chambers of Courts of Cambodia (or Courts of Cambodia), now enters a three year term. “residual”period, focusing on the organization of its archives and disseminating information about the work of its members for educational purposes.
Experts who took part in the court’s work or monitored its proceedings are now pondering its legacy.
Heather Ryan, a 15-year-old follower of the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, believes the court provided some accountability.
“The amount of time and money and effort that’s expended to get to this rather limited goal may be disproportionate to the goal,”She spoke in a video interview, originating from Boulder, Colorado.
She was thrilled to have had the trials. “in the country where the atrocities occurred and where people were able to pay a level of attention and gather information about what was happening in the court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague or some other place.”The International Criminal Court and World Court are located in The Hague, Netherlands.
Michael Karnavas, an American lawyer who served on Ieng Sary’s defense team, said his personal expectations had been limited to the quality of justice his clients would receive.
“In other words, irrespective of the results, substantively and procedurally, were their fair trial rights guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution and established law afforded to them at the highest international level?”In an email interview, he stated the following. “The answer is somewhat mixed.”
“The trial stage was less than what I consider fair. There was far too much improvisation by the judges, and despite the length of the proceedings, the defense was not always treated fairly,”Karnavas, who also appeared before both the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR for Rwanda), said that.
“On the substantive and procedural law, there are numerous examples where the ECCC not only got it right, but further contributed to the development of international criminal law.”
There is a consensus that the tribunal’s legacy goes beyond the law books.
“The court successfully attacked the long-standing impunity of the Khmer Rouge, and showed that though it might take a long time, the law can catch up with those who commit crimes against humanity,”Craig Etcheson, a Khmer Rouge scholar and writer, was the chief of investigations at the ECCC’s office of prosecution from 2006 to 2012.
“The tribunal also created an extraordinary record of those crimes, comprising documentation that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, that will educate Cambodia’s youth about the history of their country, and that will deeply frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.”
The bedrock issue of whether justice was served by the court’s convictions of only three men was addressed by Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which holds a huge trove of evidence of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
“Justice sometimes is made of satisfaction, recognition, rather than the number of people you prosecute,”He spoke to The Associated Press. “It is a broad definition of the word justice itself, but when people are satisfied, when people are happy with the process or benefit from the process, I think we can conceptualize it as justice.”
Peck reported from Bangkok. This report was co-authored by Jerry Harmer, an AP journalist.
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