The Very Tricky Trial of the Khmer Rouge

Samrang Pring/Reuters
Victims of the Khmer Rouge regime protesting outside the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to demand individual reparations, Phnom Penh, October 2014

Last October the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convened in Phnom Penh to resume what many regard as the most important international criminal prosecution since the Nuremberg trials. Currently on trial are the two highest-ranking surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan, the onetime chief of state, and Nuon Chea, who made many important decisions and is known as Brother Number Two. They face charges of genocide, torture, murder, forced marriages, rapes, enslavement, and other atrocities dating back to the period, between April 1975 and January 1979, when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. During that time, 1.7 million Cambodians, a quarter of the population, were killed or died of starvation or disease.

The first part of their trial concluded in October 2013 after 221 days of testimony from ninety-two witnesses. The octogenarian ex-leaders were found guilty of crimes against humanity and last August received sentences of life in prison. But those convictions covered only a narrow range of offenses—the executions of soldiers and officials from the Khmer Republic, the defeated US-backed regime, and the forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands from Phnom Penh and other urban centers in April 1975. Anticipating that the proceedings could drag on for years, the prosecutors decided to split the charges against them into two groups and save the most explosive ones, including genocide, torture, and murder, for last. “For many Cambodians, these are the crimes that defined the regime and affected them and their loved ones personally,” said Heather Ryan of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, who has monitored both trials. Some observers believe this could be the last case to be heard by the ECCC—the final opportunity to pass judgment on the masterminds of the most brutal crimes of the second half of the twentieth century. A verdict is not expected until 2017, and the appeals process could drag on for another two years.

As the trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders move forward in the Phnom Penh courtroom, an equally fascinating drama has been building elsewhere. Since 2009, investigators have been gathering evidence against five lower-ranking Khmer Rouge figures—district leaders and military commanders—who allegedly carried out purges, committed acts of genocide against minorities, and ran detention camps in which thousands were tortured and executed. UN officials say that these five suspects bear collective responsibility for the deaths of nearly 100,000 people. “The evidence against them,” I was told by a source close to the tribunal, “is horrific.” (One of them died of natural causes in 2013 before he could be brought to trial.)

It is an open question whether the four surviving lower officials will ever have their day in court. Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter…

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