In this photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Khieu Samphan, foreground, former Khmer Rouge head of state, sits in a courtroom during a hearing at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Aug. 16

Last living member of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime tries to overturn genocide, war crimes charges

Khieu Samphan, 90, served as the Khmer Rouge's head of state. Today, he's trying to overturn several charges tied to his involvement in the brutal regime. While some have lauded the Khmer Rouge tribunal, it may end with a mixed legacy.

The World

The final living member of the Khmer Rouge regime took the stand Monday in an attempt to overturn charges of genocide and war crimes he’d been previously convicted of in 2018. 

In what is believed to be the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s final hearing, the legal team of 90-year-old Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state, argued in a Phnom Penh courtroom that their client did not have adequate time to prepare an initial defense, among other things. 

“It [the verdict] should be null and void, and so I am requesting the Supreme Court chamber to … reverse the judgment,” attorney Kong Sam On told the judges, according to the AP. 

Experts say the original conviction is unlikely to be overturned, though a ruling isn’t expected until next year. 

Samphan is one of just a handful of former leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, whose members are commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, that the tribunal has managed to try and convict since it started prosecuting some 15 years ago. 

Some have lauded the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal, but it may actually end up with a mixed legacy.

Related: Cambodian refugees saved from deportation through pardons

‘The tribunal was the answer’ 

The Cambodian government established the tribunal in 1997, in conjunction with the United Nations, with the goal of putting Khmer Rouge leaders on trial for allegedly committing crimes against humanity and other heinous acts during the region’s rule between 1975 and 1979.

At the time, the lofty project had overwhelming support from the Cambodian people, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Documentation Center of Cambodia, which possesses the largest archive on the Khmer Rouge period. 

“I think people also wanted to give justice a chance. ... They want people to recognize the suffering that people have been through. So, the tribunal was the answer.”

Youk Chhang, executive director, Documentation Center of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

“I think people also wanted to give justice a chance,” he said. “They want people to recognize the suffering that people have been through. So, the tribunal was the answer.”

Chhang, 60, was a teenager living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took power following the Cambodian Civil war. He said he remembers the locking down of cities and forced evictions of people into the countryside. 

Related: Cambodians reflect on Khmer Rouge: 'It was chaos.'

His family ended up feeling the country — but not without heavy costs. Chhang lost his father, some sisters, uncles and cousins.

“It’s been broke, you know, it’s a broken family. Not just our family, but for the entire Cambodia,” Chhang said.

Some 2 million Cambodians died during the totalitarian rule of the Khmer Rouge, about 25% of the country. Many of the victims were suspected political opponents, while others perished during a failed agricultural reform that led to widespread famine. 

Early surveys, including this one from the University of California Berkeley School of Law, showed that the tribunal, which consisted of both Cambodian and international judges, had overwhelming support. 

Public participation was key to that success, Chhang said. Since the public can file complaints, seek reparations and testify during hearings, “there’s a sense of ownership of history.”

Yet, while the tribunal brought some closure and a lot of awareness to atrocities committed by the regime, that level of participation also spurred frustration, he said. 

These frustrations range from constant financial troubles to alleged meddling by the Cambodian government ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has openly voiced disapproval of the tribunal.

These frustrations, experts say, have eroded the perception of the body over time — even though a recent survey from the Documentation Center of Cambodia shows the Cambodian people overwhelmingly still want Khmer Rouge leaders brought to justice.

“It feels to be political — not a proper tribunal in a sense — but because there’s too much compromise. ...But I think for the first conviction and the second conviction there was some sense of justice being done.”

Virak Ou, human rights activist, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

“It feels to be political — not a proper tribunal in a sense — but because there’s too much compromise,” said Virak Ou, a human rights activist based in Phnom Penh, who lost his father during the Khmer Rouge. “But I think for the first conviction and the second conviction there was some sense of justice being done.”

Still, it took a while to get there — highlighting another frustration with the tribunal: its glacial pace at getting anything done.

Not only did it take 10 years just to set up the body itself, by the time hearings began in the late 2000s, Ou said, to the Cambodian eye, the defendants looked like regular grandparents. 

“So, it was very difficult to connect the level of brutality of the alleged crime to the people who are supposed to stand trial,” he said. 

Waning influence 

The tribunal’s first conviction didn’t come until 2010 when Keng Guek Eav, commonly known as Commander Duch, was sentenced to life in prison on a slew of charges, including crimes against humanity, murder and torture. 

He is most known for his role in overseeing the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21, where thousands were interrogated, tortured and eventually executed. The prison is now a museum and memorial to its victims. 

Longtime journalist May Titthara recalls going to Duch’s village to cover reactions to the verdict. There, May said, Duch was known as a teacher and a good man. 

“But when they saw him in front of the TV they were so surprised. They say, ‘Oh, my friend! I cannot believe that you are the chief of police of S-21!’” Titthara said.

Other defendants have been of similar ages — or even older. Some, like Duch, have died while serving out their sentences. Other Khmer Rouge senior leaders, including the infamous military commander Pol Pot, died before they could be tried. 

May said that while the tribunal may have once been very important to an older generation, many Cambodians now have other things on their mind — like widespread poverty and the pandemic.

“Right now, Cambodian people, they care about their daily living. They think about their food, how can they survive when they’re locked down. So they don’t care about the hearing anymore."

May Titthara, journalist, Cambodia

“Right now, Cambodian people, they care about their daily living. They think about their food, how can they survive when they’re locked down. So, they don’t care about the hearing anymore,” May said. 

Virak Ou agrees with that sentiment. 

He said while the Cambodian people may be happy in 20-30 years that the perpetrators of the killing fields were at least put on trial, ultimately, the tribunal cannot fix many of the country’s current problems. 

“Because of that, I don’t think many of the Cambodian population, or Cambodian people, have the privilege to focus on closure and justice and a process that could be dragging on for months, if not years,” Ou said.

Wider implications 

The tribunal’s end could potentially have wider geopolitical implications — especially when it comes to China. 

China was a crucial backer of Khmer Rouge and was never supportive of the tribunal, said Josh Kurtlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Affairs. 

Each hearing served as a reminder of how Beijing supported the regime. 

Although China is Cambodia’s largest investor today, he also noted that Beijing is acutely aware of rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the region.

“So, they don’t want stories widely circulating of China backing one of the — probably after the Nazis — one of the most brutal regimes in world history,” Kurtlantzick said.

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