Ex-Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were given life sentences, including for genocide against ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims, by an international tribunal in Cambodia on Friday, the only senior cadres to be held accountable for the deaths of anywhere between 1.7 million to 3 million people.
The landmark verdict owes much to the efforts of one man who has devoted more than 25 years to achieving justice for those who perished or suffered under a radical regime which devastated the country and its people in just a few short years.
Craig Etcheson, one of the world’s leading genocide investigators and now a visiting scientist at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, started working on the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 1991, a time when he and a small group of mostly academics was trying to convince America’s Congress to change US policy to support the prosecution of the Khmer Rouge.
That effort took more than three years, but eventually produced a law known as the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act, which made it official US policy to support a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“Little did I then realize that this was only the beginning of what would essentially become my career,” Etcheson said in an interview with Asia Times.
Etcheson spent years in then war-ravaged Cambodia delving into what happened between 1975 and 1979, the period of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rule.
Documenting a genocide
He went on to work with the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, where he established the Documentation Center of Cambodia, better known as DC-Cam.
“We studied Khmer Rouge mass graves, collected Khmer Rouge documents, interviewed victims and perpetrators, gathering all the information we could find about what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Etcheson, who also worked for six years as a United Nations investigator.
“We knew that this could provide important evidence for an eventual tribunal. And we also continued to push the Cambodian government and the international community to agree to establish a tribunal to look into the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime.”
Etcheson said it took several more years to convince the UN to seriously consider the idea of an international tribunal for the Khmer Rouge.
That lobbying effort was followed by a long and complicated series of negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government, with lots of interested third parties, namely Japan, France, the US, China, India and others, engaged sometimes from the sidelines and sometimes front and center.
The complex negotiations, Etcheson says, finally resulted in an agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government in 2003 to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly known at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Investigating crimes of the magnitude committed by the Khmer Rouge was a daunting task – and not one for the faint-hearted. Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while former Khmer Rouge cadres were either in denial or hiding.
An astonishing array of crimes
“The scope of the task was mind-boggling,” said Etcheson. “Basically every minute of every day during the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge regime, everywhere in Cambodia, crimes were being committed. It was a most astonishing array of crimes.”
That array included: murder; extermination; slavery; torture; illegal confinement; mass expropriation of property; religious and political persecution; gender crimes including rape and forced marriage; deportation; forced transfer; war crimes; and genocide.
“We had to review hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from inside the Khmer Rouge regime, and hundreds of thousands more pages of analysis and reporting about the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said.
“We had to analyze thousands of interviews with victims and perpetrators and conduct many more new interviews on top of those. We had to examine thousands of photographs, hundreds of maps and hundreds of films and videos – all to find evidence that was pertinent to the examples of crimes we were selecting.”
Despite resource constraints, Etcheson and his small team completed the task in just one year so that within weeks after tribunal judges had completed and formally adopted the court’s internal rules, they were able to send the charges to co-investigating judges.
The judges were initially shocked, he says, when the co-prosecutors delivered an introductory submission in July 2007 that was more than 50,000 pages long.
The judges then settled in for what would be a complex and lengthy judicial investigation that took nearly three and a half years to turn the introductory submission into cases 001 and 002, and order them for trial.
The verdict handed down on Friday by the ECCC was on Case 002/02.
The first case prosecuted – and the only finished trial so far – was known as Case 001 and involved Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch. He was in charge of the notorious S-21 interrogation center in Phnom Penh, a former school where inmates were tortured until they confessed to alleged crimes and were then executed.
An estimated 14,000 people were sent to S-21 and only seven were known to survive. Duch was sentenced to 30 years in jail, but was recently moved from his prison cell to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh for health reasons. Duch has recovered and is now back in his cell.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan had also been sentenced in a previous case – Case 002/1 – at which both received life sentences. Friday’s verdict was the final case against the two most senior Khmer Rouge leaders still alive.
Friday’s verdict was reached after a total of 283 hearing days at which the court heard testimony from 185 people (114 witnesses, 63 civil parties) affected by the crimes committed and eight experts.
According to court records, a total of 82,780 members of the public attended the courtroom hearings on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Many of them were victims of the Khmer Rouge or those who had lost relatives to the regime; many others were former members of the Khmer Rouge.
The charges against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were formidable. According to court documents, the charges in Case 002/02 focused on alleged crimes against humanity, genocide and grave breaches of the UN Geneva Conventions based on evidence collected from crime sites and factual allegations.
A sobering tourist attraction
The crime sites consisted of worksites, cooperatives, security centers and killing fields, including the Notorious S-21 Security Prison in Phnom Penh which is now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and a very sobering tourist attraction.
The charges also involved genocide against the Cham Muslim minority and ethnic Vietnamese, the ill-treatment of Buddhist and former Khmer Republic officials, and the nationwide regulation of marriage – the Khmer Rouge forced thousands of couples to marry.
Estimates vary on the exact number of people who died from starvation, torture, execution and forced labor, with estimates ranging anywhere between 1.7 million to 3 million.
In simpler terms, experts estimate that one in four Cambodians perished during the Khmer Rouge’s brief but brutal reign of three years, eight months and 20 days, which was bought to an unceremonious end when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in early 1979.
Many have been critical of both the amount of time and the money – more than US$300 million – spent on the trials. Others have questioned the court’s mix of local and international judges, a mix not used in other international courts. Etcheson, however, is not among them.
“The ECCC was always an experiment to see how much justice we could get for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” Etcheson said. “We can now see the outer edges of how far this process will go, and though far from perfect, in my view it was certainly worth the effort.”
“Everyone wishes that the trials could have been concluded more promptly, but for a variety of reasons that was simply not possible,” Etcheson said, noting the scale and scope of the crimes in question and the time required to collect, organize and sift through all of the evidence.
Politics was also an issue. Before agreeing to the court’s formation, one of the compromises required by the Cambodian government was that only “those most responsible” in the Khmer Rouge leadership should face trial. Critics say this is because Cambodia’s current government is run by many ex-Khmer Rouge members, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
They also question why only two aging cadres faced the court on Friday. Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Ieng Tharith, Ta Mok and other senior Khmer Rouge leaders have all passed away and escaped facing justice. However, Etcheson said there were several other surviving senior Khmer Rouge leaders who should also face justice.
But there is high-level local opposition against proceeding with more cases. Hun Sen has also opposed further indictments, warning frequently that expanding the scope of the trial could lead to “civil war.”
Etcheson disagrees and says that to provide justice to the millions who survived the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule – as well as those who perished – more ex-leaders should be held to account. Several have been charged in the still pending cases 003 and 004 for war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity.
They include Ao An, a Khmer Rouge deputy secretary accused of genocide against the Cham. His trial would likely reveal what happened when regional Khmer Rouge leaders carried out the orders they received from the regime’s center. His fate is now in the hands of the ECCC’s pre-trial chamber.
Another is Yim Tith, a Khmer Rouge secretary reputedly responsible for a massive purge in the country’s northwest region he controlled. Evidence shows he oversaw the killing of more than 100,000 people, a killing spree that, among other crimes, resulted in charges that he committed genocide against the Khmer Krom people.
“His trial would reveal to the Cambodian people that the most senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime organized mass murder on a truly shocking scale,” said Etcheson. “We await the decision of the co-investigating judges concerning whether or not Tith should be sent for trial.”
In yet another case, Meas Muth, secretary of the Khmer Rouge’s navy – by far the largest of all the military units in its Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK) – is accused of capturing Vietnamese, Thai and other nationalities from the high seas and subjecting them to torture and death.
One of the more prominent cases against Meas Muth involved New Zealander Kerry Hamill, Canadian Stuart Glass and Englishman John Dewhirst. The three were sailing a yacht named Foxy Lady which strayed into Cambodian waters in 1978 and was seized off Cambodia’s coast by Muth and his men.
The three young adventurers suffered terribly and were tortured and eventually killed. Some of the “confessions” their torturers forced them to make were found at S-21 and are now stored at the Documentation Center in Phnom Penh. Their remains, however, were never found.
The sentences read out on Friday by the ECCC against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are just a small step towards justice for the millions who perished or suffered under the Khmer Rouge. But the verdict still failed to answer one key question.
“What would real justice look like when you are talking about an event in which millions of people were killed? In truth, there is nothing that can make up for all of the destroyed lives, families and communities,” Etcheson said. “That is why trials of people accused of mass atrocity crimes yield only symbolic justice.
“For many survivors, however, symbolic justice is better than nothing because it puts a face on responsibility for the catastrophe, and it also produces a carefully tested historical narrative which gets at the question survivors always have: ‘Why?’”
For the long-suffering people of Cambodia, despite now extensive documentation, testimonies and hearings, it’s a question that may never fully be answered.
Alan Parkhouse is the former editor-in-chief of The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times.
Craig Etcheson is the author of ‘After The Killing Fields: Lessons From The Cambodian Genocide,’ and ‘The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea.