Thursday, August 7, 2014

Decades After Khmer Rouge’s Rule, 2 Senior Leaders Are Convicted in Cambodia

Soum Rithy, center, who lost his father and three siblings during the Khmer Rouge regime, hugged another survivor after the verdict was delivered. CreditDamir Sagolj/Reuters

The New York Times - August 6, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A court on Thursday found the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, which brutalized Cambodia during the 1970s, guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison.

The chief judge, Nil Nonn, said the court found that there had been “a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Cambodia” and that the two former leaders were part of a “joint criminal enterprise” that bore responsibility. They were convicted of murder and extermination, among other crimes.

More than 1.7 million people died under Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979.

The proceedings of the tribunal, a joint effort of the Cambodian government and the United Nations, have been criticized as being extremely belated and for covering only a narrow sliver of the crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The judgments against Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were the first to be handed down against the Khmer Rouge leadership, although a lower-ranking official, who ran a notorious prison for the regime in Phnom Penh, was convicted in 2010. Both senior leaders will file appeals, their lawyers said Thursday.

Nuon Chea, left, in 2013, and Khieu Samphan last month.CreditMark Peters/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, via Associated Press 

The case against the two defendants has been divided into stages. The trial that culminated Thursday has focused largely on the evacuation of urban centers, part of the regime’s disastrous attempt to establish an agrarian utopia. Initial hearings have begun for the second trial, which includes charges of genocide.

The proceedings are taking place in a courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The courthouse is a purpose-built, modern structure designed by United Nations architects that is very far removed from the primitive conditions that the Khmer Rouge leaders sought to enforce. 

Witnesses have given harrowing testimony of being forced out of their homes and into the countryside by Khmer Rouge soldiers, denied medical care and seeing executions and other atrocities. The evacuation of Phnom Penh in April of 1975 left the capital a ghost town and portended the social fragmentation that would follow over the next three years, eight months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule. Families were separated, money was abolished and the country’s population was forced into a giant, failed effort of collectivized labor. 

“The heart of the Khmer Rouge crimes was the complete disregard of human costs of their revolution,” said David Chandler, a former American diplomat who served in Cambodia and is a leading historian on the Khmer Rouge atrocities. “Their vision was completely flawed and unhitched to reality.” 

The trial began in 2011, more than three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a delay that was one of several factors that complicated the quest for justice. 

“Justice on this scale cannot be done by any trial mechanism as far as I can see,” Mr. Chandler said. 

The limited scope of the trial and verdict, which dealt only with the forced evacuations and one site where mass executions occurred, has frustrated many observers and victims, and even the staunchest supporters of the trial have been ambivalent about the process. 

“We knew that the court would not resolve everything. But it was important to have the proceedings. We had to continue the search for truth,” said Youk Chhang, the founder of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an organization that has amassed a trove of documents and photographs from the Khmer Rouge era. 

“There’s a satisfaction knowing that these people will never be released,” said Mr. Youk Chhang, who was among those expelled from Phnom Penh in 1975. “They lost their freedom.” 

Though hearings have begun for the two leaders’ second trial, it remains an open question how far the proceedings will go, given the age and frailty of the defendants. Both men have been hospitalized several times over the past three years, leading to multiple delays. Mr. Nuon Chea on some occasions has testified by video link from a hospital-style bed in the court’s basement. 

Another defendant, Ieng Sary, the foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge government, died in 2013, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was also a minister, was declared mentally unfit for trial. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, died in the jungles of northwestern Cambodia in 1998, years before the tribunal was established. 

The trial judges’ decision in 2011 to split the massive indictment into smaller cases was made in the belief that it would expedite a verdict. But prosecutors and victims have argued that they made a poor selection of which crimes to hear in the first part of the trial. 

“For people who pay attention to details, it’s a pretty narrow verdict,” said Anne Heindel, the co-author of “Hybrid Justice,” a recent book on the tribunal. “It doesn’t encompass many of the things that people think about when they think about the Khmer Rouge, so many of the crimes that victims experienced and remember: when they worked in cooperatives, when they were starving.” 

Buddhist monks from Myanmar watched a live video feed showing the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, Nuon Chea, left, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, during their trial in Phnom Penh. CreditTang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

Ms. Heindel said the trial judges had divided up the charges “haphazardly,” without input from prosecutors or defense teams. She said this had led to an expensive trial that did not grapple with the gravest crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime. The total cost of the trial to date is more than $200 million, mostly paid by international donors and the United Nations. 

The tribunal has been beset by funding shortages, allegations of corruption and political interference by the country’s long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier. 

Only one other Khmer Rouge figure, Kaing Guek Eav, 71, known as Duch, who commanded the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, was previously convicted by the tribunal. He was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison, which was raised to a life sentence on appeal. 

Mr. Nuon Chea, who was the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea under Pol Pot, has been a feisty and unrepentant presence in the courtroom. He defended Khmer Rouge policies as necessary to the development of a “people’s democratic revolution.” He said the evacuation of Phnom Penh was done out of “kindness and generosity” because the leadership feared that the capital might be bombed by the American military. The covert carpet-bombing of eastern Cambodia from 1965 to 1973 is seen by historians as a major factor in the destabilization of Cambodia in the years before the Khmer Rouge came to power. 

Mr. Khieu Samphan, who like many other Khmer Rouge leaders was educated in Paris, was a former teacher and parliamentarian, known in the 1960s as a frugal and uncorrupt figure amid the venality of Cambodian politics. He became the Khmer Rouge’s head of state in 1976 and served for years as a figurehead for the regime. Many witnesses in this trial testified to his integrity, and said they refused to believe that he knew of high-level decisions to evacuate urban centers and purge the country of supposed traitors. 

Nearly 4,000 victims filed claims in the trial and some were present in the courtroom gallery on Thursday, including Norng Chan Phal, who was a young boy when he was jailed in the S-21 prison, where both of his parents were tortured before being executed. 

“We have been waiting for this verdict for more than 30 years,” he said outside the courthouse. He said he was satisfied with the verdict but wanted the defendants denied a proper burial. “After they die, their bodies should be kept in the prison cells,” he said. 

The verdict was broadcast live on Cambodian television and has been widely covered in the local media. But among young people, there has been limited interest in the trial. 

Some were not even aware that the verdict was being issued. Across the street from the courthouse on Thursday, a group of young garment workers from a nearby factory gathered to stare, wondering aloud what was taking place. 

“Are they prosecuting the Khmer Rouge leaders today?” asked Him Sopheak, 28. 

A friend, Nuon Chantha, 24, said she knew very little about the proceedings. “I’ve heard from old people that the Khmer Rouge was really bad and they killed many people,” she said. 

“I don’t have much time to pay attention to the hearing,” she said. “I spend most of my day working.” 

Neou Vannarin contributed reporting. 

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