Judgment Day for the Khmer Rouge


Photo: ECCC Pool

Ieng Sary Hearing 3Criminal case file 002, aka, Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, spent most of this week in the dock of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia, where he appealed his detention on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders charged so far, Sary denies he had any role in overseeing the death by starvation, torture and murder of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and early 1979.

Described in the charge sheet as ‘retired’, he lived peacefully in the former guerrilla stronghold of Pailin until last year when an aging Soviet-era chopper swooped down and police arrested and bundled him off to Phnom Penh cell.

82 year-old Sary had to be helped by security guards into the dock were sat like a harmless old man and complained of dizziness.

Flashes of what has been described as his incredible arrogance were evident from time to time.

At one point he asked the hearing be adjourned on the grounds he had spent his lunch break being examined by a doctor and was hungry.

This irony would not have been lost on older Cambodians watching the nationally televised proceedings, who can remember eating rats, spiders, lizards and anything else they could find to ward off starvation under the Khmer Rouge.

Many historians believe Sary’s membership of the Community Party’s Central Committee leaves little doubt of his involvement in Khmer Rouge decision-making processes.

He is also held responsible for sending Cambodian diplomats and students returning from abroad after the war to Tuol Sleng, Pol Pot’s infamous torture centre.

Ieng Thirith, Sary’s wife, is also charged with war crimes for her role in the murder of hundreds of her staff while she was the regime’s Minister of Social Action.

Thirith, whose fearsome demeanour could best be described as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest but Maoist, maintains those accusations are “100 per cent false”, that she did nothing other than fix damaged hospitals and procure medicine for the sick.

Her lawyer agues she is mentally unstable and she’ll probably try and cop an insanity plea before her trial comes up.

Sary is appealing his arrest of grounds of double jeopardy, that he is being tried twice for the same case.

He was sentenced to death in absentia by a Vietnamese-backed People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in 1979. Cold war politics and the fact the trial met few internationally recognised standards – even the defence lawyers called for the death penalty – meant it was ignored.

For me the real clincher of this week’s proceedings was when his US lawyer referred to him as ‘an agent of peace’ for defecting along with several thousand hardcore guerrillas to the government in 1996.

While this did ultimately lead to the Khmer Rouge’s collapse, his motives had less to do with wanting peace than getting out before an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot purged him.

It will be some time until we know the outcome of Sary’s appeal.

In the meantime, preparations are under way for the first trial proper, Kaing Guek Eav or Duch as he is popularly known, former head of Tuol Sleng.

The consensus is that his is a fairly open and shut case. That is why it is first cab off the rank. As day-to-day head of Tuol Sleng his culpability is fairly obvious. He is reported to have regularly supervised and taken part in many of the interrogations that took place.

Duch even implicated himself to author Nic Dunlop whose excellent book The Lost Executioner chronicles his nearly decade-long hunt for and eventual discovery of Duch.

Ironically, Duch, now a Christian, is the only one of the five in custody to have shown even the slightest shred of remorse for what he did.

The process leading to these trials has been long and fraught. Now the tribunal is battling to translate the necessary documentation into English and French and still reeling under allegations ECCC staff have had to kick back part of their salaries to unnamed individuals.

Human rights groups remain concerned Cambodia’s judiciary – the ECCC is a hybrid tribunal comprising Cambodian and international judges – is no were near sufficiently developed to deal with a trial of this size and complexity.

One night during the appeal I go out drinking with Khmer friends, all of who lost relatives to the Khmer Rouge and all of who are disappointed in the ECCC.

They say it is too slow and not enough Khmer Rouge leaders are being tried (although more arrests are rumoured to be under consideration). It also rankles them the conditions in which the five so far in detention are being kept are better than those experienced by many Khmers. These are all fair points.

We joke that a really meaningful trial would need to be held at the city’s Olympic Stadium such are the number of people implicated in the Khmer Rouge’s crimes.

Present would be members of the US administration in the early seventies, whose decision to carpet bomb Cambodia killed nearly a million people and breathed life into what had until then been merely a rag tag bunch of insurgents sitting in the jungle.

Also present would have to be representatives from all those countries, Australia included, who supported the Khmer Rouge to take Cambodia’s seat in the UN and who, in the name of preventing Soviet expansionism, armed, trained and fed the guerrillas and their allies throughout the eighties, allowing them to fight on at an incalculable cost to the country.

A major sticking point in getting the trial off the ground was Cambodia’s insistence it be held in Phnom Penh and not in the Hague.

Despite all the problems they were right to demand this.

For four days this week one of the most senior living members of the Khmer Rouge had to sit in a court, with only protective glass separating him from hundreds of ordinary Cambodian people, farmers, students, monks, many of them victims of his regime, who had come to watch.

While there is little doubt at least some of these accused will spend their last days in a cell, at the end of the day the most important outcome will be it has given Cambodians a chance to see once powerful people held accountable for crimes they have committed.

This almost never happens here.

It is a genuinely moving experience and alone worth the US$140 million price tag.


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2 Responses to “Judgment Day for the Khmer Rouge”

  1. angelasavage Says:

    Andrew read this article aloud to me and it brought tears to my eyes. Terrible story. Wonderful writing.

  2. olgamary Says:

    Well done Andrew. So many of us have forgotten Pol Pot “those who forget the past” etc

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