Last Chance for Justice: Will Khmer Rouge Leaders Finally Face Consequences for the Killing Fields?

Kim Vuthy has walked inside this courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh three times. But it never gets any easier looking at the men she holds responsible for the deaths in her family.

"I feel so much anger because of them," Vuthy said, standing outside the packed courtroom where prosecutors began to lay out their cases Monday against three former senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. 

When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and evacuated the capital, there were 11 people in Vuthy’s family. When she returned to the city a few years later, only four were left alive. 

"If (the Khmer Rouge leaders) were standing before me right now, I would take my shoes off and hit them over the head," she said. 

Such is the frustration still felt by many in this country, a generation after the Khmer Rouge collapsed. One-quarter of the population is believed to have died from starvation or disease to outright executions ordered by a regime that grew paranoid of dissent. 

Chea Leang, one of two lead prosecutors in the hybrid tribunal, where international legal officers are matched with their Cambodian counterparts, says the court will hear how the Khmer Rouge turned the country into "a massive slave camp." 

"The forced evacuation of Cambodia’s cities, the enslavement of millions of people in forced labour camps, the smashing of hundreds of thousands of lives in notorious security centres and the killing fields, the extermination of minorities, the countless deaths from disease, extortion, abuse and starvation. These crimes, ordered and orchestrated by the accused, were among the worst horrors inflicted on any nation in modern history," Leang told the court as part of her opening statements. 

Facing trial are the last surviving senior leaders of the regime: the former Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, its chief ideologue, Nuon Chea, and its foreign minister, Ieng Sary. 

A fourth person, the former social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith, was last week declared mentally unfit to stand trial, and could be released. This has underscored the urgency many people here feel about pushing forward with this case; all of the accused are elderly and say they have significant health problems. 

Leang said the trial should not be about revenge but "the ascertainment of truth and the determination of guilt." 

The tribunal’s larger legacy, she said, should be a message to perpetrators of human rights atrocities around the world. 

"We will send this message: justice never forgets," she said. "Most importantly, we will ensure that the truth is told and that justice prevails." 

Yet in a country where every citizen is touched by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, justice has many meanings. 

The court has been besieged by controversy in the lead-up to this week’s opening statements. Legal observers and rights groups have accused the court’s investigating chamber of incompetence, and of bowing to political pressure from a government that has publicly opposed further cases beyond the current one. 

And the court has faced criticism from some victims, who say they aren’t being given a voice in this case. 

In a first for a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal of its scope, the court was set up to allow victims, known as civil parties, to participate as equals in the legal proceedings. 

But on the eve of the trial’s opening, Cambodian-American Theary Seng, whose parents were killed by the regime, denounced the court as "a sham" and withdrew her civil party status. 

"For me, it’s an issue of having enough…of this farce that is very much political theatre," she said. "I no longer want my name, the memories of my parents, of my family to be soiled in this process that is no longer legitimate." 

Other Cambodians say they’re grateful for the opportunity for at least some sense of justice, even if it comes decades late. 

"Real justice," said Hun Chim, who lost two brothers during the Khmer Rouge regime, "will be when the court prosecutes the Khmer Rouge leaders, and sentences them for their crimes." 

Without the court, he says, no Khmer Rouge leaders would face any consequences for the crimes of the regime. 

But others also worry that justice may still take too long. 

Given the complexity of the trial and the advanced ages of the accused, observers say some of the former leaders may not live to see the trial’s completion. 

But in his submissions, international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley warned tribunal judges not to feel sympathy for the accused former leaders merely because of their age. 

"Their advanced years may tempt within you feelings of sympathy and compassion. But let us not for a moment forget the catastrophic legacy that these three elders represent," Cayley said. 

Cayley charged that the scope of the violence unleashed by the Khmer Rouge, with the three remaining accused at the helm, was unparalleled in modern history. And, the prosecution contends, the three accused were among the top leaders of a regime that knowingly enacted the policies that devastated the country. 

"As senior leaders … Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan conceived and implemented criminal polices that enslaved an entire nation, caused the death of two million people, and subjected the remainder of the Cambodian people to conditions of the most degrading in humanity." 

The tribunal is expected to begin hearing from witnesses in early December. But the trial itself is expected to last at least two years. 

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