Decisions Needed Now to Ensure Fullest Possible Trial for Khmer Rouge Leaders

NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative is urging the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to take the necessary steps now to ensure that the trial process of two of the most senior surviving former leaders of the Khmer Rouge covers the full scope of charges against them.

The two defendants, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, have so far only faced charges in a trial focused on the evacuation of Phnom Penh in April, 1975, and events at an execution site outside the city; given the mass of the alleged crimes and the advanced age of the defendants, the court opted to defer other charges to one or more subsequent trials.

Khieu Samphan served as Khmer Rouge foreign minister and head of state, and Nuon Chea as the deputy secretary of the party, where he was known as “brother number two” to the regime’s leader Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

The two, both in their eighties, were originally charged alongside Ieng Sary, who died earlier this year, and his wife Ieng Thirith, who has been ruled medically unfit for trial. The evidentiary portion of the first stage trial was completed in October, and a judgment is expected in mid-2014.

The Trial Chamber is now beginning the planning process for the envisaged second trial.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, said: “If a second trial is to have any practical possibility of delivering meaningful justice while the accused are still alive and fit, it must not only begin within the next few months, but it must be conducted with a maximum of efficiency consistent with international fair trial standards.”

The Justice Initiative welcomed the submission from Nick Koumjian, the new international co-prosecutor at the ECCC, and his Cambodian colleague Chea Leang, at a trial management conference last week. The co-prosecutors proposed that the evidentiary portion of a second trial begin in late February 2014, and that it should include all the outstanding charges against the two, but in a factually streamlined manner. 

Goldston noted the considerable legal and practical hurdles involved in the case, but said: “It is encouraging to see such detailed thought, planning and advocacy coming from the prosecutors. The other stakeholders of the court must match this level of leadership.”

The Justice Initiative notes in particular that decisions need to be taken immediately on the question of whether or not judges who heard evidence in the first trial may remain in place for the second.

“The decision about which judges will preside over the second trial can and must be made immediately so that staffing for a new chamber or additional staffing for the existing chamber does not become an excuse for further delay,” said Goldston.   

The Justice Initiative also called on the United Nations, the government of Cambodia and the donors to affirm their commitment to adequately fund the court through the conclusion of the case and act quickly to appoint the necessary staff to avoid further delays.

The ECCC was established in 2004 by a joint agreement between the United Nations and the government of Cambodia, and uses a mix of international and local judges and staff. It began proceedings in 2007.

The tribunal has successfully completed one case, handing out a life prison sentence in February 2012 to the former head of the Tuol Sleng torture center.

The court’s co-investigating judges are also continuing to examine two further cases, known as Case 003 and 004, involving other senior Khmer Rouge figures, despite continued opposition from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has been monitoring the work of the tribunal since 2007, as part of its work to ensure accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.