It took 16 long years for a trial in a military camp on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to bring closure to the events of the 1970s. Court expenses exceeded 330 million dollars (over 8 billion crowns). In the end, only three people were punished for the slaughter of almost a quarter of the Cambodian population.
The last hearing of the extraordinary judicial chambers in Cambodia took place on Thursday – a UN-backed tribunal tasked with prosecuting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The tribunal rejected the appeal of 91-year-old Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the fanatical communist movement. Khieu Samphan was given a life sentence for genocide and other crimes. Half-hidden behind headphones and a white mask, he sunk into his chair as the verdict was read.
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Their attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine. The Communists’ insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, caused the death of thousands of people who succumbed to often treatable diseases. Brutal and arbitrary executions and torture carried out by their cadres against suspected subversive elements or during purges within their own ranks between 1976 and 1978 were officially classified as genocide by the UN.
During the four years of their rule, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians, some sources say as many as three million. Kieuh Samphan was the president at the time, but during the trial he repeatedly claimed that he was not responsible for nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s murdered population.
He was eventually convicted, thanks in part to genocide survivor Roshane Saidnattar. She flew to Prague last year, when Seznam Zprávy interviewed her.
Today, Roshane Saidnattar is an award-winning director. Years ago she made a documentary film “Survive” which also included an interview with Khieu Samphan conducted by Roshane herself. However, the authenticity of the conversation eventually served as crucial evidence in a trial for crimes against humanity.
Today, Roshane Saidnattar is among those for whom the conviction of one 91-year-old man cannot be sufficient satisfaction.
“But I wonder why only he appeared in court? He wasn’t alone, it was crowds of people. Khieu Samphan claimed he had no knowledge of the dead; all he said he was after was a new Cambodia. That is why my interview with him was selected as evidence against him in court. Even though he said he didn’t accept responsibility, he answered my questions about what he did on a daily basis,” Roshane recalled for Seznam Zpravy. According to her, he didn’t even care if he was talking to a victim.
“He didn’t care what I experienced in my childhood. He just needed to manipulate me and convince me of his innocence. I definitely didn’t feel scared when I talked to him. These people took away my childhood and killed millions of people. But I knew that he was not alone in this, other communists from foreign countries stood behind him. Today, those who stood in the streets and shouted support for the communists are around 70 years old and live somewhere among us around the world. Only five people went to trial. But even these people could not commit such atrocities if there were not even more powerful ones standing over them – China and Russia,” she recalled a year ago, urging that the world finally learn its lesson.
“Even today we should think about who gave them that power. The leader of the Khmer Rouge had the support of a very powerful country, without which there would have been no genocide. Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan are people like you and me, I’m not defending them, but they needed help to do something like this. Samphan felt unfairly singled out in court,” she added conciliatoryly.
Corruption and coercion
It is a wonder how long the trial lasted without reaching a more satisfactory conclusion. The truth is that by the time the tribunal was created, most of the Khmer Rouge leaders were dead.
The tribunal, jointly administered by the United Nations and the Cambodian government, was only formally established in 2006, more than a quarter of a century after the Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge from power. However, the group continued to operate as a guerrilla insurgency for several years afterward.
The unpleasant combination of two judicial systems and two often conflicting opinions only produced constant delays. Behind the slow pace of investigations was often corruption and pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who tried to limit the scope of prosecutions. Not surprisingly, he himself used to be a Khmer Rouge cadre.
Professor of anthropology Alexander Hinton worked as a forensic expert at this tribunal. “Personally, I always had very low expectations of what would happen, and those expectations were met,” Professor Hinton told the New York Times. But he added that the tribunal at least shed light on a time that many older Cambodians would rather forget and that many younger ones do not want to believe.
Stories that young people don’t believe
Up to three-quarters of Cambodia’s current population is under the age of 30. Many Khmer Rouge survivors have said that their children and grandchildren refuse to believe their accounts.
Interview with survivors of the Cambodian genocide
Roshane Saidnattar is a former Radio France International journalist and film director’s assistant who has worked her way up to become an award-winning director. Her documentary film “Survive” was selected for screening at fifteen film festivals and won awards at three of them. The film also includes an interview with the former president of Cambodia, Khieu Samphan, whose relevance and authenticity served as evidence in a trial for crimes against humanity.
At one time, the Khmer Rouge evacuated entire cities, including patients in hospitals, and forced hundreds of thousands to march on foot to the countryside. They created a nationwide system of forced labor camps, torture chambers, and execution sites known as the killing fields. They banned religion and trade, split up families, and executed those deemed part of the old order. In some cases, just because they wore glasses.
“I was a child who could read and write at the age of seven, I was educated from kindergarten. My parents taught me to behave well. I suddenly wanted to pretend I couldn’t do such a thing. As a child, I couldn’t understand why they taught me how to be polite, and now they wanted me to be simply an animal,” Roshane recalled of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge rule.
“But I quickly learned that I had to play him well because if I failed, they would kill me, they would kill my whole family. Communists liked farmers and workers, educated people did not suit them. Why? Communists are aware that uneducated people are better controlled. Those who are afraid,” she added.
For the next few years, instead of going to school, she did hard work in the fields and lived in appalling conditions, separated from her parents.
“Those who were found to be educated were also killed – doctors, teachers. I saw a lot of murder, dying of starvation, dying of exhaustion. Every day I saw people who fell weak to the ground and never got up again.’
Enlightenment for Cambodia
This period has only been taught in Cambodian schools in the last ten years. In the end, the main contribution of the tribunal was not so much the conviction of the guilty as the creation of “empirical records that no one can question anymore,” Peter Maguire, an expert on war crimes and author of the book Facing Death in Cambodia, told the NYT.
One of the main shortcomings, he said, was the small number of people prosecuted, partly because Prime Minister Hun Sen feared the trials could get out of hand and cause political problems for his government.
Of the five people who were supposed to stand trial, two died before it began. Some of the most prominent potential defendants died before charges could be brought, most notably Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Khieu Samphan appealed unsuccessfully in 2014 against earlier convictions for murder and other crimes. He received a life sentence in that case, which would have remained in effect regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s hearing.
His co-defendant Nuon Chea, often referred to as Pol Pot’s number two brother, was also found guilty in both trials and sentenced to life in prison. He died aged 93, less than a year after both men were convicted of genocide in 2018.
The third person convicted by the tribunal was Kaing Guek Eav, known as Ghost, the commandant of the Khmer Rouge Central Prison in Phnom Penh. Thousands of people were tortured in it, who were then taken to the killing fields on the outskirts of the city and executed. He was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity in 2012 and died in 2020 at the age of 77.
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Although Thursday’s hearing marked the end of active litigation before the tribunal, it will not mark the end of the trial itself, said Craig Etcheson, a litigation expert and former visiting scholar at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
Now comes a three-year “bequest period” during which donors can decide whether to help finance similar projects. In this way, work with the public, support for victims who participated in the process, preservation of archives and analysis of the court’s jurisprudence could be launched.
“It’s not over yet,” said Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “We have at least five million survivors who suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and whose stories have neither been heard nor documented.”
Roshan also believes that this chapter of history is not over.
“In Cambodia, the communists are still in power and nobody cares. Even the current leader of Cambodia denies everything and claims that he leads a free democratic country. Meanwhile, there is no freedom of speech, people end up in prison for their opinions, intellectuals are still oppressed. There is no opposition party there either. This chapter of history is not finished,” she told Seznam Zpravy.
“And everything is still watched and supported by the same countries. And you know who I’m talking about. It still kills and we are indifferent to it. If no one intervenes, the same thing will happen in Cambodia.”