Life Update: The Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Stanford interns at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Hello friends! As some of you know, this summer I am living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for an internship trial monitoring the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. I have been so distracted updating you all on steam buns and bamboo sticky rice and beautiful temples, that I have been remiss in letting people know about my actual job — leading to questions from family and friends like “Who’s on trial again?” (reasonable) and “Wait, I thought the Khmer Rouge was a person?” (crying). So here is a blog post about the Khmer Rouge, the Court, my job and some interesting things that have happened at court.

History of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer,” was a radical communist group that ruled Cambodia as Democratic Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979. It was a particularly brutal and violent regime, and an estimated 2 million Cambodians died due to starvation, overwork, or violence. The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society; they believed for the communist revolution to be successful the country needed to begin again at “Year Zero”. They abolished money, free markets, private property, religious practices and traditional culture and specifically targeted “intellectuals” (anyone who was educated, spoke a foreign language, or even wore glasses). In addition, monks were forcibly disrobed; the Cham, ethnic Vietnamese, and other minorities were targeted; and Khmer Rouge members who were suspected of being traitors were purged.

When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April 1975, they forced the entire city to evacuate and relocate to villages around the country. Thousands of people died walking in the heat, with little food or water. Those who did survive were sent to work on communal farms around the country. Families were separated, and many died from exhaustion and famine. The Khmer Rouge operated through a regime of terror, and for four years the population lived in fear that they would be identified as “enemies of Angkar” or central party. Detention centers all around the country (S-21 or Tuol Sleng being the most famous) tortured and extracted confessions suspected enemies.

S-21, or Tuol Sleng Prison, was the largest security center in the country, reserved for the most important prisoners. Security officials at detention centers were not given a reason as to why prisoners were sent to them. Instead, prisoners were expected to write their own confessions under torture. Many of these confessions were likely false, but coerced confessions of attempted coup d’etats fueled the paranoia of Pol Pot and other leaders.

This is only a brief description of the terror and violence people who lived under Democratic Kampuchea experienced. It wasn’t until 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge were finally removed from power. (Note for my American friends: Because the US did not like the Vietnamese at that moment, the US refused to allow the new, Vietnamese-backed government take the Cambodia seat at the UN. Consequently, the Khmer Rogue kept the seat until 1993.)

In order to keep the detention facilities secret, victims at S-21 were driven at night to the Choueng Ek Killing Fields, were they were killed and buried in mass graves.

The Khmer Rouge then retreated to a part of Cambodia that borders Thailand, becoming basically a government in exile. There was sporadic guerrilla warfare between Khmer Rouge forces and the Vietnamese-backed government of Heng Samrin until 1991, when the UN brokered a peace agreement. In 1993, the UN oversaw a general election in Cambodia, resulting in a three-party coalition, and most of the Khmer Rogue forces surrendered in 1994 as a result of a government amnesty program. There was a lot of political infighting between powerful political figures in the subsequent years but eventually, in 1998, Hun Sen became the Prime Minister, a post he retains today.

Major Leaders of the Khmer Rouge

Pol Pot, alias Brother Number One. General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Died in 1998, therefore could not be charged at the ECCC.
Nuon Chea, alias Brother Number Two. Former Chairman of the Democratic Kampuchea National Assembly and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions and murder, torture and religious persecution under Cambodian law. Convicted in Case 002/01, currently on trial in Case 002/02.
Khieu Sampan, alias Hem. Former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea. Charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions and murder, torture and religious persecution under Cambodian law. Convicted in Case 002/01, currently on trial in Case 002/02.
Ieng Sary, alias Van. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Democratic Kampuchea. Charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions and murder, torture and religious persecution under Cambodian law. Died before Case 002 finished.
Ieng Thirith, alias Phea. Former Minister of Social Action of Democratic Kampuchea and wife of Ieng Sary. Charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions and murder, torture and religious persecution under Cambodian law. Ruled unfit to stand trial due to dementia.
Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch. Former Chairman of S-21. Convicted of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions by the Trial Chamber on 26 July 2010 in Case 001. Sentenced to life in prison on appeal.

History of the ECCC

The ECCC is not the first court to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge; however, the previous Tribunals have mostly been political or show trials. In 1979, the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal found Pol Pot and Ieng Sary guilt of genocide (although neither of them showed up in court nor served a sentence.) In 1997, the Khmer Rouge themselves tried Pol Pot for crimes committed in the organization after 1979. Pol Pot died in 1998, still in exile in the jungle.

In the years after the Khmer Rouge, according to academics and historians, there was a “culture of silence” about the Democratic Kampuchea period. Many people in Cambodia did not want to talk about their experiences and there are some government officials in Cambodia today who were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge. Additionally, during the Democratic Kampuchea period, the Khmer Rouge were very secretive about who their leaders; many Cambodians only knew the government as the “Angkar” and did not know who was actually in charge.

In 1997, the Cambodian government approached the UN for assistance in trying Khmer Rouge leaders. There was a lot of negotiations in order to get the court set up — the UN wanted it to be an international tribunal, and the Cambodians wanted it to be a domestic court. Finally, in 2003 a compromise was reached: the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia would be a hybrid tribunal. While the ECCC is technically situated in the domestic Cambodian courts, it applies both Cambodian and international law and has Cambodian and international staff. Over half of the judges are Cambodian and the rest are internationals; there is a Co-Lead International Prosecutor, Defense and Civil Party Lawyer and a Co-Lead Cambodia Prosecutor, Defense and Civil Party Lawyer.

There are currently four ongoing cases. Case 001 has already concluded with a guilty verdict against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who was the prison commander of S-21. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions in 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment on appeal.

Case 002 — which I am currently trial monitoring! — is still at trial. This case is a little confusing, so bear with me. The Defendants are Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who were second and third in command in Democratic Kampuchea, although they dispute this. (There were originally two other defendants, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith; however, Ieng Sary died before Case 002 concluded and Ieng Thirith was ruled unfit to stand trial due to dementia.) Because the case was really massive and the judges were worried the Defendants would die before a verdict was reached, the Trial Chamber decided to severe the case into two parts. Case 002/01 deals with the forced expulsion from Phnom Penh and other regions and the execution of soldiers at Tuol Po Chrey. Case 002/02 deals with genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese; forced marriage and rapes; internal purges; four specific security centers, including S-21; treatment of Buddhists, among other things. Case 002/01 has already concluded, with a guilty verdict for both men. They are currently appealing the decision. Case 002/02 is ongoing (and I go to court every day to monitor the trial).

Case 003 and Case 004, which involves five additional people, are still at the investigation stage, so a lot of the information is confidential. We know that Meas Muth is one of the Charged Persons in Case 003. However, it is unclear if these cases will ever go to trial for a couple reasons. Firstly, the Cambodian government is opposed to these cases going forward since they involve persons connected to the government. The international community is not super excited either because they don’t want to continue funding the ECCC: the court has cost around 200 million dollars (more fun funding facts here, page 2). In fact, a lot of the staff has gone on strike periodically because they haven’t been paid. (Although, as this graphic reminds us, there are priorities and then there are priorities.)

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 9.20.28 AM
Credit: The Leitner Center report, “International Criminal Tribunals: A Visual Overview”

The court has said they’re planning to finish the trial stage of Case 002/02 by the end of the year. Then they have to issue a judgement and hear the appeal (if there is one), as well as finish up the appeal for Case 002/01. So even if Case 003 and 004 don’t go forward, the ECCC will probably be around for a few more years.

What Alina Does At Work All Day

Nuon Chea has not appeared in court since I have arrived due to back pain. Instead, he sits in the holding cell downstairs where he can listen to the trial remotely. Apparently his holding cell and the media room share a wall (although I’ve been assured its soundproofed).

So, what is my actual job? I’m working for an organization called the Asian International Justice Initiative or the WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford (note again that this blog post does not reflect any of their opinions). They do a lot of cool things in Cambodia around international justice, including trial monitoring the ECCC.

Every morning, the other interns and I pile in bright and early into a van that takes us to the ECCC (we have to go really early because Phnom Penh traffic can take anywhere from 1–3 hours). We then sit in the media room and take notes on what is happening at court that day, the number of people who are attending, and anything exciting or disruptive that happens in the courtroom.

NGOs and other organizations have been really good about bussing students and villagers from around Cambodia to the ECCC so that they get a chance to view the trials (they often have to get up at 2am to get to court on time, so you sometimes see people fall asleep in the viewing gallery). We also live tweet what’s going on in the courtroom and have a Facebook summary each day. At the end of the week, we publish a report on issues that came up at court. These reports became the basis of the AIJI’s report on Case 002/01 “A Well Reasoned Opinion?” (which you can read here, if you’re interested).

Sometimes court can be boring but sometimes it can be really interesting (and dramatic)! For instance, last week Henri Locard, a French historian who conducted research on prisons in Democratic Kampuchea, testified as an Expert Witness. He had some choice things to say about the Court, and the Defense got really snarky in questioning. My favorite excerpt:

Victor Koppe (Defense Attorney for Nuon Chea): Have you ever heard of the term “peer review”?

Locard: Of course I know about that.

Koppe: And have you ever produced articles on communism or totalitarian ideology in “peer reviewed” journals? […]

Locard: Yes, quite a few!

And a little while later.

Koppe: Do you know what “confirmation bias” means?

Locard: No, I don’t.

Koppe: Let me give a definition. It’s the tendency to interpret new information so that it becomes compatible with existing theories and convictions . . . now knowing what confirmation bias is, did you have this bias in your research?

Locard: Well, I don’t know about Holland where you come from. But in France we are taught from early childhood to exercise critical thinking. […]

The next morning, Locard came to court and Anta Guisse (defense attorney for Khieu Samphan) began questioning him. But Locard clearly had other things to say.

Locard: I didn’t sleep very well last night, so it might be difficult for me to answer… yesterday you practiced cold torture on me and now I know what cold torture means. I wasn’t able to sleep between one and four in the morning.

Guisse: I am simply doing my job. Mr. Locard, I am only putting questions to you in the way I put questions to all witnesses — by pointing to contradictions when I find them and therefore asking clarification. In no case am I torturing you.

This was, to put it mildly, not the most appropriate venue to amount being questioned about your academic credibility and bias to the suffering of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge. Then Michael Karnavas, the international co-lawyer for Meas Muth charged in Case 003, came out with a super snarky op-ed in the Cambodia Daily:

“Mr. Locard is entitled to his opinion, however ignorant, misguided or degenerate it may be. He obviously was under the misapprehension that he was in court to pontificate, that his answers to the prosecution would be taken at face value by the defense and that he would not be challenged for his assertions and conclusions. Foolish arrogance . . . Poor Mr. Locard. Victimized by his own sense of self-worth and self-assurance. Rather than show deference to him for his erudite performance in answering the prosecution’s questions with aplomb and flair, the defense lawyers had what he imagined to be the temerity to show him errors in his suppositions.”

Throw. Down.

But all drama between European lawyers and academics aside, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is supposed to be for the benefit of people in Cambodia. There are a lot of criticism about these trials, like why they’re taking so long, what’s the point of putting people on trial, why is the international community spending so much money on a court and not development aid? Which are all, I think, very valid questions. There is also a lot of problems with trial management and other legal issues, which AIJI has documented in its report.

The ECCC is far from perfect. But there are some reasons I think the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and international justice in general is helpful, although I cannot speak for Cambodians (my full thoughts in my article in the Stanford International Policy Review here). International courts like the ECCC offer the opportunity for countries and individuals to come to a reckoning with the past — both in personal and societal terms. While some courts do it better than others, people both have the opportunity to testify about their own experience at the Court or to learn about what happened to their family and loved ones. Courts can also clarify history, something that is especially salient in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge were very secretive about who was in charge and what was happening in the country.

Again, the court is not perfect and there are a lot of philosophical, historical and legal issues that come up when thinking about international justice. But they’re an important tool to think about when addressing the legacy of mass atrocities. In any case, it’s been an interesting summer!




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Alina Utrata

Alina Utrata

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford.