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The International Criminal Law blog

Cambodia: Bringing the Surviving Leaders of the Khmer Rouge to Justice

1 July 2011 by Administrator

Four of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders deemed ‘most responsible’ for the deaths of 1.7 million people have gone on trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

With the aging leaders all in their late 70s or early 80s and with the former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot long deceased, the trial before the United Nations-backed panel represents the last and best chance for Cambodia to bring accountability to the Khmer Rouge leadership blamed for the deaths.

On trial are Nuon Chea, 84, who was Pol Pot's No.2 and the group's chief ideologist; Khieu Samphan, 79, the former head of state; Ieng Sary, 85, the former foreign minister, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, 79, who served as minister for social affairs.

The prosecution claims that the four leaders are guilty of a “joint criminal enterprise” in which their leadership made them culpable, whether or not they participated directly in the crimes. All four of the defendants say they are innocent.

Many in Cambodia hope that the public trial will clarify for history the actions of the Khmer Rouge, who caused the deaths of 1.7 million people — nearly a fourth of the population — from 1975 to 1979.

Chief judge Nil Nonn opened the court session on Monday with procedural matters, including reading out the charges against the four which include crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. Cambodian victims' advocates have decried how long it has taken to launch the trial, saying the proceedings are needed to shed light on a dark period and that time is running out for drawing meaningful testimony from the defendants on the stand.

Although all four defendants were present for the start of Monday's session, three of them were allowed to exercise the right to excuse themselves for reason of poor health, leaving only Khieu Samphan in the courtroom.

In recent months, the tribunal has been mired in controversy over what critics charge is an effort by the co-investigating judges to scuttle further prosecutions. Critics have suggested the panel is folding to Cambodian government pressure to bring an end to the trials. The Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, presumably wary that political allies who once served with the Khmer Rouge - as he did - could face prosecution, has declared he simply won't allow further indictments. He has long sought to limit the scope of the tribunal

The Tribunal started operations in 2006. Its first defendant was Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, where only a handful of prisoners survived. Up to 16,000 people were tortured under Duch's command and later taken away to be killed. Duch, now 68, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. His sentence was reduced to a 19-year term because of time previously served and other technicalities, bringing angry criticism from victims who called the punishment too lenient.

The Initial Hearing of Case 002 lasts from 27th -30th June 2011.

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