ASIAWATCH — With defendants before the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts well into old age and failing in health, efforts are being made to speed up the trial process amid shocking testimony of relatives sacrificed to prove party loyalty, Luke Hunt reports
Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal has been dogged by controversy since the first public hearings were held in November 2007, including allegations of corruption, funding issues and disputes over the scope of the tribunals.
But the biggest risk to finding justice for the two million people who perished under Pol Pot is the age and health of the surviving leaders. This was borne out over the past two weeks, with Ieng Sary, 86, hospitalised for bronchitis and grinding the entire trial to a halt.
The former foreign minister is considered the frailest of the three currently in the dock for genocide and crimes against humanity. His 80-year-old wife, Ieng Thirith, has already been ruled medically unfit for trial and remains in detention while undergoing further psychiatric evaluation.
Doctors say Ieng Sary has stabilised but warned he also suffers from chronic health conditions, including heart and back problems, and this can only deteriorate. This has prompted the Open Society Justice Initiative, which is monitoring the trial, to suggest Ieng Sary might have to be severed from the process.
His lawyer, Michael Karnavas, said his client did not want to hold up proceedings and had no objection to missing testimony from witnesses deemed less relevant. However, he added that Ieng Sary would not waive his right to be present during the hearings that touched on him either directly or indirectly.
Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen told Spectrum that Ieng Sary’s condition was a major concern.
“Ieng Sary is recovering in the detention centre after having been discharged from hospital on Tuesday. We expect that he will be participating in the hearings starting from [tomorrow],” he said.
Also before the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) are Nuon Chea, the 85-year-old chief ideologue and No2 to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 80, a former head of state whose economic theories came into play after April 1975, when the ultra-Maoists won absolute control of what would become Democratic Kampuchea.
“We are of course mindful of the advanced age and health conditions of the accused persons, and the trial chamber is constantly working to ensure that the process can be as swift as possible,” Mr Olsen said.
Ta Mok, a senior Khmer Rouge military figure, died aged 80 in 2006 while awaiting trial, and all remaining members of the Standing Committee which wrote and deployed Khmer Rouge government policy have died through age and illness or been killed in brutal factional brawling within their own ranks.
Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest imposed by Ta Mok.
Significant changes have been made to speed up the trial process. Case 002 was split into several mini-trials, designed to make the proceedings more manageable, with the first trial to form some of the basis of subsequent trials.
Mr Olsen added that two-way audio and video links in the holding cells in the basement of the courtroom had also helped, allowing the accused to participate remotely when ill health prevents them from sitting in the main courtroom.
Ieng Sary’s medical exit followed another marathon session of sensational revelations of atrocities allegedly committed by Pol Pot and his henchmen between 1975 and 1979. Critical for the prosecution was how the regime had turned on itself.
Among the most startling evidence was testimony that Nuon Chea had sent two nieces _ Lach Vary and Lach Dara, both Chinese-trained doctors who worked for the regime’s health ministry _ along with their husbands and another two nephews to the dreaded S-21 torture and extermination camp.
It was also heard that Pol Pot had dispatched a sister-in-law to a security centre where she perished. It was a macabre game of one-upmanship, proving their loyalty by sending those closest to them to a horrible death in order to purify the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) of unwanted influences.
Much of the evidence was produced by the prosecution’s star witness, Kang Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who was jailed for life in Case 001 after being found guilty of crimes against humanity and the deaths of at least 12,000 people at S-21, which he ran.
The actual S-21 death toll has been estimated to be much higher, probably 24,000 people. Duch testified he had met regularly with Nuon Chea or Son Sen for updates on confessions and camp operations, a charge Nuon Chea has denied.
“I reported to him about the confessions, and he instructed and advised,” Duch said, adding that a typical meeting lasted 10 minutes and was held every three to five days. “The power was concentrated in the hands of the secretariat of the Communist Party, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea.”
Duch’s evidence was damning. He said in 1977 Nuon Chea had replaced Son Sen as head of Santebal _ the Khmer Rouge secret police. Son Sen survived the reshuffle of posts but was killed along with his family 20 years later amid a violent factional split.
Favouritism was strictly forbidden and Nuon Chea had sought to prove his purity among the CPK by dispatching his own kin to the “killing fields”. His ruthlessness was corroborated by evidence from Saloth Ban, 67, who worked for Ieng Sary as secretary-general of the foreign ministry and was also Pol Pot’s nephew. He told the court that he was always terrified for his life and his immediate family, adding: “I had such fear, and I think others had bigger fear than me.”
He said Pol Pot’s oldest sister-in-law, Khieu Thirath _ who is also the sister of Ieng Thirith _ was killed in a Khmer Rouge security centre.
Khieu Thirath’s other sister, Khieu Ponnary, was the first Cambodian woman to receive a baccalaureate degree and had married Pol Pot in 1956 but she suffered chronic schizophrenia as the regime began to assert itself over the country.
Others to perish as the regime turned on itself were members of the royal family headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the current king father, who initially supported the regime with China’s encouragement.
Members of the Standing Committee like Vorn Vet, the deputy prime minister in charge of economy, and his entire family were also sent to S-21 where they were tortured and killed in the second half of 1978, just as the Vietnamese and Cambodian defectors were plotting their invasion.
Further questioning of Duch by deputy co-prosecutor William Smith revealed Nuon Chea had ordered the executions of all remaining prisoners of S-21 in January 1979, as Pol Pot was hastily arranging a retreat into the countryside before the invading Vietnamese arrived in the capital.
“There were more than 100 prisoners, even over 500, I feel,” the former mathematics teacher and born-again Christian said, adding the job was completed inside three days.
He also added to previous testimony he gave in Case 001 incriminating Khmer Rouge superiors in the executions of Westerners _ an American, a New Zealander, an Australian and a Briton _ captured off Cambodia’s southern coast in 1977.
“After the interrogations, there would be a decision to smash. The smashing was to be conducted in a form of burning to ash,” Duch said. “I was following the order from Nuon Chea, and I implemented the order.” The court had earlier heard how one of the Westerners was burned alive.
“The decision to arrest was made by the Standing Committee in a broad sense, but in a more practical sense it was brother Pol who made the decision and in some cases brother Nuon was the one who made such decisions,” he said.
The Vietnamese-backed invasion forced the leadership into the remote countryside, where Duch informed Nuon Chea that the hasty retreat had meant he had left damning S-21 documents behind. This included hundreds of forced confessions and photographs of tortured prisoners that would eventually be used to secure the convictions against him in Case 001.
Brother No2 was unimpressed.
“On my side, we destroyed them all. You were very bad that you could not manage this,” Duch quoted Nuon Chea as saying. They are still not on good terms and more recently Nuon Chea described Duch as “rotten wood”.
The evidence has put the defence firmly on the back foot.
Assuming Ieng Sary does overcome his health issues, the hearings at the ECCC will resume this week and a concerted counter-attack by counsel for the accused can be expected over the coming months.
According to Mr Olsen this could continue into next year.
“It is important however to be aware that the chamber cannot cut corners,” he added. “Just because the accused persons are of advanced age they are still entitled to enjoy the same fair trial rights as any other defendant.”