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Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Trial Begins, but Value of Process in Question

BY Larisa Epatko  June 28, 2011 at 10:15 AM EST

Tourist views skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at memorial in Phnom Penh (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty)

A trial meant to bring closure to Cambodians still suffering from the memory of the communist Khmer Rouge regime is continuing to raise questions about the extent of the prosecutions and the value of the judicial process itself.

Pre-trial hearings began Monday for four senior-most members of the Khmer Rouge regime accused of war crimes and genocide during Pol Pot’s rule from 1975-1979, when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were killed.

All four defendants are expected to enter not guilty pleas. They are Nuon Chea, 84, Khieu Samphan, 79, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 85, and his wife Ieng Thirith, 79. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998 at age 72.

We spoke with GlobalPost reporter Sebastian Strangio in Phnom Penh about how the trial is being perceived within the country.

Cambodians, especially those in major cities, will likely watch it as they did the televised court proceedings of former jailer Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, said Strangio. Duch was convicted last July and sentenced to 35 years, which was later reduced to 19 years for time served.

Khmer Rouge families are interested, but for a different reason. Strangio said he spoke to some Khmer Rouge families who live near the Thai border, and they expressed concern that other local notables in the area — for example, ex-Khmer Rouge leaders who are now district governors — might be put on trial if the prosecutions expand to more people.

The question about whether there would be additional trials never reached a satisfactory conclusion, even though there was much discussion about it during the formation of the tribunal, said Strangio. Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly said two trials are enough. And the investigators seem to agree, raising criticism in the country that they are yielding to the government.

Other people, in more rural areas, tend to not be as riveted to the trials because of the demands in their daily lives, Strangio said. “They’re working in remote areas, they’re farming and constantly concerned about whether the rains will come. There are things much more immediate to them.”

Also, about 70 percent of Cambodia’s population of 14.7 million, according to the CIA Factbook, is under age 30, so the number of people who lived through the Khmer Rouge is declining, along with their interest.

The court and the documentation center of Cambodia, therefore, have been working to educate people about the court proceedings.

“They realize the court isn’t going to have any meaning unless local people understand what the process is and how it operates,” said Strangio. “The court claims it wants to close a chapter of a very dark period of history.”

Some Cambodians want to put that past behind them. “They don’t want to be reminded of the horrible things they went through or their families went through,” said Strangio.

“The court is grappling with a lot of these sorts of cultural and personal issues,” along with pushback in the country about whether judicial proceedings can even bring justice, he said.

“I think a lot of people are idealistic and wide-eyed about it, but it’s certainly not something that just automatically happens. It’s a process which is going to hopefully have long-term benefit to the country but it can be a pretty complicated issue, and the views on it here are incredibly varied.”

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