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Imperfect justice in Cambodia

Produced by Jason Maloney

On the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, history is being made: citizens arrive from around the country to witness for themselves the trials of three former Khmer Rouge leaders – accused of orchestrating some of the worst crimes in history.

The highest profile defendant in the dock is Nuon Chea, also known as “Brother Number Two,” second in command to the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, whose forces killed two million Cambodian citizens through starvation, forced labor, torture and executions.

It took an invading Vietnamese army to stop the Khmer Rouge in 1979, but another 20 years of civil war and political turmoil followed. Meanwhile survivors built new lives from scratch. As Cambodia finally stabilized, there were calls for accountability.

The first steps towards a tribunal started in 1997, almost two decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Then came six years of bitter negotiation, between the United Nations and the Cambodian government, over the structure of the court.

What emerged is a compromise. A judicial body with U.N. involvement and international financial support but over which Cambodia keeps the balance of power. Ten out of 17 seats are reserved for Cambodian judges who are directly appointed by the government. And the government approves all international judges.

Why does this matter? Because many of the current top leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once mid-level Khmer Rouge members themselves. And from the beginning they insisted on limiting the scope of the court to look at only a small number of senior leaders.

The first trial started in 2009, more than a decade after the process to set up the court began. Charged was a man known as Duch, director of the notorious S-21 prison – a former school where 15,000 people were interrogated and tortured before being executed. After three years of investigation, testimony, deliberation, and then appeals, Duch was sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in prison. The entire process played out before the eyes of the Cambodian people.

And now a second trial — the tribunal’s landmark case — is underway. Besides Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary is on the stand; so is Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge head of state. But in six years of operations by a court only expected to last three years, and after $150 million spent, there has been just one conviction and the second trial with three defendants still in its early phase.

There has been some disappointment that crimes like rape and starvation do not figure prominently in the court’s charges. And even supporters of the court, like Lay Pak, are frustrated by the limited number of those being tried. Some Cambodians, like shopkeeper Ieng Try, have decided the tribunal is just not worth the effort.

In the end, as they try to understand the almost impossible level of violence that swept their nation decades ago, Cambodians may be left pondering this one final question: is imperfect justice better than no justice at all?


  • Anonymous

    Heinous people give their atrocities names that make them sound like a good thing, such as “extermination” and ethnic “cleansing.”  I have no idea why the rest of the world echoes those names, even as they condemn the slaughter of human beings those names were designed to “euphemize.” 

    Please do not refer to genocides as either extermination or cleansing.  These are people being murdered, not insects or dirt.

  • dancesdowntheroad

    I live in Cambodia currently, working to support the legal system.  What upsets me, is that the the United Nations recognized the leaders from Case 002 as the the legitimate government for close to 20 years after the Khmer Rouge.  Worse, the United States funneled extensive resources, weapons and funding through that time, simply because it was our “enemy” Vietnam that came to Cambodia’s rescue and established their democratic government. 

    Cambodians are beautiful in every way, most just don’t read the news. People want to see these leaders punished, and it is unfortunate that Pol Pot is not around to stand trial. Case 001 put “Duch” in prison for life.  This case, Case 002, is another major step for Cambodia. There may be frustration with the trial, but at least justice is a work in progress.  

  • Onthedelaware

    Justice for Cambodia is not only the idea of judical prosecutions of the few — the crimes are equivalent to those prosecuted in the Hague after WWII.  And we did promise to assist the Cambodians.  And we did leave them.  And we did know that they were being killed (Killing Fields).  We had many of their military here and I knew one.  He escaped and left his wife and  two young children.  This entire society was almost destroyed.  There is no justice without the truth and their is no courage in this world to teach this truth.

  • Cambodian Sam

    “Extermintion and ethnic cleansing” to the eyes of Khmer people mean to kill only Khmer people whom are not Chinese descent…China at that time was going to use Cambodia as their annex territory (Mao regime era in the 60′ and ’70).

  • Bcg51bora

    Cambodian leaders are still committing crimes against humanities.  Genocide is still going on.