In Cambodia, mixed results for the court in charge of trying the leaders of the Khmer Rouge

It is a discreet ending, almost embarrassing. On September 22, in Phnom Penh, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) delivered its final verdict with general indifference. The judges of the unique jurisdiction in their genre, mise en place avec le soutien des Nations unies in 2007 for the judges responsible for the atrocities committed by the Khmers rouges between 1975 and 1979, on the appeal of Khieu Samphan, sentenced to prison forever. The 91-year-old former president of Democratic Kampuchea, a Maoist-inspired genocidal regime, is the last of the defendants left alive. The special court, with its hundreds of Cambodian and foreign employees, its retinue of lawyers, secretaries, translators, will pack up when it has completed its mission of archiving his work.

Also read (2011): A historic trial for Cambodia

For what balance? The ECCC have spent fifteen years an amount estimated at 337 million dollars (339 million euros) to try five people and convict three. In addition to Khieu Samphan, the special court sentenced Nuon Chea, the former ideologue of the Khmer Rouge regime, to life in prison; he died in 2019 behind bars. Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Douch”, the former head of the sinister S21 prison, where thousands of people were tortured and executed, was also sentenced to life in prison in 2012, before dying eight years later. Ieng Sary, former head of diplomacy for the genocidal regime, died during his trial in 2013; his wife, Ieng Thirith, a former Minister of Social Affairs, who suffered from senile dementia, was declared unfit to stand trial and released in 2012.

Also read: In Cambodia, Khieu Samphan, the last living Khmer Rouge dignitary, sentenced to life in prison

The hopes born from the creation of these Chambers, however, were immense, like the crimes committed during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. This dark period, during which 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives, was not even addressed in school curricula. Pol Pot, the “number one brother” at the head of the Khmer Rouge regime, died in the jungle in 1998. His subordinates joined Prime Minister Hun Sen one after another and withdrew peacefully. Abroad, jurists and historians debated the semantics of the tragedy. Was it a genocide, when the executioners like most of the victims were Cambodian? Should we speak of “autogenocide”, at the risk of amalgamating criminals and victims?

The end of impunity

In this sense, the assessment of the ECCC is certainly positive. The trial of Douch, the former head of the S21 prison, was a real catharsis. The defendant’s attitude confused the victims: after having repeatedly apologized, Douch, on the last day of his first instance trial, asked, against all odds, to be acquitted. However, his years of collaboration with international justice have allowed him to acquire a detailed knowledge of the operation of the terrible detention center that he directed.

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