Phnom Penh Notes: Khmer Rouge Leaders on Trial

Taegin Stevenson was in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh as the trial of the three most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders got underway at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

For three days in November, Cambodians turned again to confront their dark past. The trial of three of the four top survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled the country from April 1975 to January 1979, was on the front pages of every newspaper; the proceedings at the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia were being broadcast live on two television stations. Survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, family members of victims, even former lower ranking cadres of the regime traveled to the court to witness the opening statements in the trial. They came by public bus, car, and motor bike, arriving at the Court every morning well before the 9:00am start of proceedings.

Each day hundreds of people flocked into the public gallery. Monks in bright orange and maroon robes sat in the front two rows, directly in front of the large window that shows the courtroom. Western journalists and NGO representatives were scattered throughout the 500-seat gallery. University and secondary students in uniforms filed in to witness history in the making. The remainder of the chairs were filled with survinging victims or relatives of victims of the crimes, who are given access to the Court in order to represent their interests. They sat at the edge of their seats, leaning towards the courtroom in front of them to get a glimpse of the three elderly men on trial.

Nuon Chea, the former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Ieng Sary, the former minister of social affairs; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, are the most senior, living Khmer Rouge officials. They are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. A fourth defendant in the case—Ieng Thirith, former Minister of Social Affairs—was found unfit to stand trial just before the trial began (a decision the Prosecution is appealing).

The prosecution alleges that the former leaders are guilty of developing and carrying out a common criminal plan, a plan which included mass displacement of the population from urban areas and forced labor, as well as the use of violence to eliminate perceived enemies at security centers and execution sites, the persecution of minorities, and forced marriage.

On the first day of trial, the public heard—through simultaneous translation in English, Khmer, and French languages—the national Co-Prosecutor, Chea Leang, provide graphic details regarding the crimes for which the accused are charged. She spoke of the forced evacuation from Phnom Penh in April 1975 that spared no one. Even hospitals were evacuated of women, who had just given birth, and those who could not walk were forced to drag themselves through the streets of the city or risk being killed. She spoke of how the road exiting the city became littered with dead bodies from those who did not survive the march to the countryside because of illness or exhaustion, or because they were executed. She spoke of how currency was abolished, how religion was prohibited, and how forced marriages replaced the bond of love. In perhaps the most gruesome moment of the day, the Co-Prosecutor described how even babies and children could be deemed enemies of the regime, meeting their deaths through having their heads smashed against trees by regime cadres.

During the second day, the international Co-Prosecutor, Andrew Cayley, provided details on the roles and responsibilities of the three former Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. It is alleged that evidence of the accused’s role in the planning and executing these crimes can be found among 350,000 pages of documents, which include interviews with the accused, interviews with witnesses and survivors, site identification records, medical reports, demographic expert reports, and other documentary evidence.

Cayley discussed the structure of lines of communication within the Khmer Rouge and how the leaders were fully informed of what was happening in across the country—from how many forced marriages were being arranged, to who stole food in a particular commune.  Throughout his presentation, screens in the public gallery showed graphics on the organized structure of the Khmer Rouge, pictures of worksites where people were enslaved, and video clips of interviews with the accused. When a video clip from a Khmer Rouge propaganda film was shown, it elicited murmurs from the audience and finger pointing from the survivors, and relatives of victims. Images from that era continue to evoke strong emotions from those who survived.

The most anticipated part of the opening came perhaps when it was time for the accused to respond. During the first day and a half, the three, white-haired accused had remained hunched over in the seats, only standing with the assistance of guards because they are too weak to get up on their own. Eighty-five year old Nuon Chea spoke first Tuesday afternoon, blaming the “confusion” from 1975–79 on Vietnamese expansionist policies. Survivors in the gallery glared at him as he spoke, sitting quietly while listening to every word.

Due to the expected statements of the remaining two accused, on Wednesday nearly twice the number of people showed up, forcing hundreds to sit and wait outside, watching the proceedings from screens. Ieng Sary, 86, read a statement arguing that a 1996 royal pardon he received should be enforced. He was by far the weakest of the accused and had to pause during his brief page and a half statement, stating “his heart could not continue.” Khieu Samphan presented for over an hour on how the prosecution sources should not be trusted, and claiming that much of the evidence fabricated. 

The trial will first hear evidence on the forced movement of the population from Cambodia’s cities to rural areas from 1975 to 1976 and related crimes against humanity. A severance order in September ordered the sequencing of Case 002 into multiple trials defined by subject matter. Importantly, this first trial will also provide a general foundation for all allegations against the accused, including the examination of the structure of the state, the roles of each of the accused before and during the Khmer Rouge rule, and the policies under the government.

In the coming weeks, more and more Cambodians will pass through the court’s public gallery, while across the country others will continued to watch and listen as both sides lay out their cases. The proceedings will resume on December 5 as evidence begins the trial chamber begins the hearing of evidence.

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