PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An international court convened in Cambodia to try the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s, concluded Thursday after spending $337 million and 16 years. Three criminals.
In what was scheduled to be its final session, the UN-aid tribunal began issuing its ruling on an appeal by Khieu Sampan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975-79. He was convicted in 2018 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
He appeared in court in a white windbreaker, wearing a mask and listening to the proceedings with a pair of headphones. Seven judges were present.
Khieu Sampan was the group’s nominal head of state but, in his defense of justice, Cambodians died of executions, starvation and deprivation while the Khmer Rouge imposed a reign of terror to establish a utopian agrarian society. Health care. It was ousted from power in 1979 by the invasion of the neighboring communist state of Vietnam.
“No matter what you decide, I will die in prison,” Khieu Sampan said in his final statement of appeal to the court last year. “I will die remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people. I will die alone in front of you. I am judged symbolically rather than my actual actions as a person.”
In his appeal, he alleged that the court erred in legal process and interpretation and acted unfairly. But the court noted on Thursday that its appeal did not directly question the veracity of the case presented to the court. It ruled point-by-point on the arguments raised by Khyu Sampan, rejecting virtually all of them, and said the final verdict of hundreds of pages would be formalized after it was published.
The final verdict makes little practical difference. Khiu Sampan is 91 years old and already serving another life sentence for his 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity linked to forced displacement and disappearances.
His co-defendant Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2 leader and chief ideologue, was convicted twice and received the same life sentence. Nuon Chea died in 2019 at the age of 93.
The only other convict at the tribunal was Kaing Guek Ew, also known as Dutch, who was the commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where some 16,000 people were tortured before being taken to be killed. Dutch was convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity, murder and torture, and died in 2020 at the age of 77 while serving a life sentence.
The real head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, escaped prosecution. He died in the jungle in 1998 at the age of 72 while the remnants of his movement were fighting their last battle in a guerrilla war that began after he lost power.
The trial of the remaining two accused has not ended. The Khmer Rouge’s former foreign minister, Yeng Sary, died in 2013, and his wife, former social affairs minister Yeng Thirith, was deemed incompetent to stand trial due to dementia in 2011 and died in 2015.
Four other suspects, mid-level Khmer Rouge leaders, escaped prosecution due to a split among the tribunal’s judges.
In an innovative hybrid system, Cambodian and international jurists were paired at each stage, and a majority had to agree for a case to proceed. The court used a French-style judicial system, with international investigators recommending the four face trial, but local partners would not agree after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced there would be no further trials, claiming they could cause unrest.
Hun Sen himself was a mid-ranking commander in the Khmer Rouge when the party was in power before the party split, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party share a similar background. He formed alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders to help cement his political control.
With its active work completed, the tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chamber in the Court of Cambodia, now enters a three-year “residual” period, focusing on organizing its archives and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.
Experts who participated in the court’s work or observed its proceedings are now pondering its legacy.
Heather Ryan, who spent 15 years following the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the court had succeeded in providing some level of accountability.
“The amount of time and money and effort expended to reach this rather limited goal may be disproportionate to the goal,” he said in a video interview from his home in Boulder, Colorado.
But he praised the trial “in the country where the atrocity happened and where people were able to pay a level of attention and gather information about what was going on in the court to a much greater extent than if the court had been in The Hague. Or anywhere else.” The Hague in the Netherlands hosts the World Court and the International Criminal Court.
Michael Carnavas, an American lawyer who served on Yeung Sary’s defense team, said his personal expectations were limited to the quality of justice his clients would receive.
“In other words, regardless of the outcome, substantively and procedurally, were their rights to a fair trial afforded to them at the highest international level by the Cambodian constitution and established laws?” he said in an email interview. “The answer is somewhat mixed.”
“The level of judgment was lower than what I think is fair. Much improvement was made by the judges, and despite the length of the proceedings, the defense was not always treated fairly,” said Karnavas, who has also appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. .
“In substantive and procedural law, there are numerous examples where the ECCC not only got it right, but also contributed further to the development of international criminal law.”
There is consensus that the tribunal has moved beyond the inheritance law books.
“Courts have successfully attacked the Khmer Rouge’s longstanding impunity and shown that although it may take a long time, the law can catch those who commit crimes against humanity,” said Craig Acheson, who researched and wrote about the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Rouge from 2006 to 2012. Was Head of Investigations of the Prosecution Office at the ECCC.
“The tribunal also created an extraordinary record of those crimes, including documentation that will be studied by scholars for decades to come, that will educate Cambodia’s youth about their country’s history and that will deeply frustrate any attempt to deny the crimes. Khmer Rouge.”
The issue of the basis of whether justice has been served by the court’s conviction of only the three was addressed by Yuk Chang, director of the Cambodia Documentation Center, which houses the vast evidence of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
“Judgment is sometimes made by satisfaction, recognition, rather than the number of people you judge,” he told The Associated Press. “That in itself is a broad definition of the word justice, but when people are satisfied, when people are happy with the process or benefit from the process, I think we can conceptualize that as justice.”
Peck reports from Bangkok. AP reporter Jerry Harmer contributed to this report.