Khmer Rouge trio face trial in Cambodia

Survivors recall torture and executions as former “Brother Number Two” and two other Pol Pot-era officials face justice.

Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary appear before a court for genocide [Kate Mayberry]

The brutality of a regime during which about two million Cambodians died will be on display once again on Monday as the Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) starts its second Khmer Rouge trial.

The UN-backed court is set to hear opening statements in the case, known as Case 002, against Nuon Chea, deputy to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and better known by his alias “Brother Number Two”.

His co-defendants, Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, and Ieng Sary, once deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, face similar charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.

None have admitted guilt.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia which has provided much of the evidence for the trial, said, “They have been denying the crimes to the people of Cambodia for the past three decades and their attitude hasn’t changed.”

He said, “The tribunal is an important process; a turning point for Cambodia.”

“The tribunal is an important process; a turning point for Cambodia.”

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

Case 002 is due to open with the UN-backed court under siege. Critics have questioned the international community’s determination to pursue further trials of those “most responsible” for the crimes, as the tribunal’s mandate requires.

Raising further concern, the Cambodian government, under Hun Sen, the prime minister, has also made clear its opposition to any further trials.

Court’s credibility at stake

“Case 002 is hugely significant, but in a big way the court’s credibility rests on what the UN does about Case 003 and Case 004,” said Clair Duffy, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative in Phnom Penh.

“You cannot have two million people slaughtered and have only a handful of people at the top brought to trial.”

The judges closed the investigation into Case 003 without interviewing witnesses, visiting the sites of the crimes or even notifying the suspects that they were under investigation.

The Open Society Justice Initiative is calling for an independent inquiry into the court’s judicial independence.

But, court officials insist the cases will proceed on their legal merits.

Huy Vannak, the ECCC public affairs officer, who has written several books about the Khmer Rouge era, told Al Jazeera: “Judges do their work based on the law rather than the perception, feeling, opinion. Parties outside the court can express their concern but the court fulfills its work independently, based on internal rules, the law and the schedule.”

At the court’s many public programmes, there is little sense of an institution in crisis.

Pupils at Reussey Keo secondary school in Phnom Penh listen attentively as Chum Mey, one of only two remaining survivors from the S-21 detention centre, explains how he was accused of being a foreign spy and tortured.

They squirm as he relates how he was forced to lick clean the box that passed for the prison’s toilet.

S-21 commandant, Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch, was the first to be convicted by the tribunal.

At least 14,000 people are thought to have died while he was in charge of the jail. Only seven people survived.

Sentenced to 35 years with a reduction for time-served, Duch is appealing his case with a ruling expected in February.

Coming to terms with past

The children, standing class by class in the school’s dusty assembly ground, join in the discussion, responding eagerly as officials quiz them about what they know and what they have learned. Some take notes. Others wipe away tears as they think of what happened to their own family members.

Eighteen-year-old Tha Chanthy sobs as she remembers her grandfather. She says the tribunal is crucial if Cambodians are to come to terms with the past.

“My grandfather died and he wasn’t guilty of anything,” she said. “We need to find justice for him. Even if he’s already passed away, if we can find justice then his spirit will be able to rest in peace.”

In a ceremony at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where the regime executed thousands of people, Khmer Rouge survivors and families of their victims held a traditional Ban Scol ceremony to honour the spirits of the dead.

Five monks in saffron robes sit at the base of the pagoda, which houses the skulls and bones of some of the thousands of people who died in the surrounding fields.

Dressed in white and struggling with their emotions, they bring offerings. Kneeling in front of the monks, their hands clasped in prayer, the wisps of smoke from the incense can’t obscure the tears that slip slowly down their cheeks.

Sum Rithy, 57, remembers how he was taken away in the middle of the night and accused of being an agent for the CIA and KGB, spending two years in prison at Siem Reap. More than 30 years later, he still lives with the scars and the disturbing memories.

“My life in prison was a living hell,” he said. “I can say my life was even worse than a pig.”

The former mechanic says he was tortured on an almost daily basis; doused in hot water that burned his skin when he refused to admit associating with foreign spies, forced to eat human excrement and beaten with iron bars. His captors even tried to make him beat a child to death. When he failed to do so, they killed the boy themselves.

“The tribunal must continue,” said Sum. “I’ve been waiting 30 years for this day. This isn’t a normal crime. This is a big case. Millions of people died.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies