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05 Mar 2007 00:00
With sad eyes, Om Som sits in her shack in the Cambodian countryside waiting for answers. The shoeless 70- year-old has clung on for half a lifetime hoping to find out what happened to her beloved husband, and why.
She also prays for some scant justice for the man she never saw again after he was led away by three young Khmer Rouge cadres, falsely accused of stealing a chicken.
Twenty-eight years after Pol Pot’s brutal regime was toppled, the prospect of a long-awaited genocide trial of its senior leaders offers a faint glimmer of hope for Om Som. With her family, she was evacuated from Phnom Penh when it was cleared by the Khmer Rouge in “Year Zero”, starved and forced to labour in the fields.
She endured the sight of bound prisoners brought in ox-carts to a Buddhist pagoda near her village and heard their tortured screams floating on night breezes from the makeshift extermination centre where 30 000 died.
“I don’t want any revenge, but if the government tries these leaders I’ll be happy,” she said. “What I really want to know is what happened.”
But even that modest hope could be dashed. The trial to bring to book the Khmer Rouge’s leaders for the extermination of an estimated 1,7million Cambodians in the “killing fields” is on the brink of collapse even before the first indictment can be handed down.
Now victims’ families, scarred by Pol Pot’s savagery, fear his ageing henchmen may escape justice and die free men because wrangling between Cambodian and United Nations-appointed international judges over the tribunal’s ground rules is threatening to derail the process.
Two attempts to resolve the disputes have foundered. Another effort to break the deadlock is set for a special session starting on March 5. But the senior international judge warns that another failure could prove fatal, forcing him and his colleagues to pull out.
“If next month the new rules are not adopted, we will not go forward because it would be useless,” said the French investigating judge, Marcel Lemonde. “Then we would have to examine the possibility of the international judges asking the UN to withdraw and drop the whole process. It’s now or never.”
The crisis comes a decade after the Cambodian government approached the UN to establish a tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders for the torture, starvation and mass slaughter of a quarter of their compatriots between 1975 and 1979. Tortuous negotiations over the scope of the hearings eventually led to the establishment of a hybrid court with 17 Cambodian and 12 international judges who took office last July—a complexity human rights groups warned was a formula for disaster.
Two of the regime’s leaders have died—Pol Pot, “Brother number one”, under house arrest in 1998, and Ta Mok, the regime’s military commander, in July last year. Just one is in custody: “Duch”, born Kak Kek Ieu. He was the brutal interrogator who headed Phnom Penh’s notorious Tuol Sleng torture centre—codenamed S21—where he oversaw the slaughter of 10 499 “spies and traitors” and 2 000 children.
Others, such as Noun Chea, “Brother number two”, Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister, and Khieu Samphan, its nominal head of state, are in their late 70s and still at liberty in Cambodia. No more than a dozen defendants, the top leaders and “those most responsible” for the genocide, are in the sights of the tribunal, whose estimated cost is $60million.
The international judges had hoped to agree on the procedures with their Cambodian counterparts last November so that the trials, which could take three years, could begin within months.
A sub-committee hit the same impasse over the 113 rules in January. A sticking point is the defendants’ right of international representation in court. Briton Rupert Skilbeck, a war crimes barrister appointed by the UN as the principal defender, has already established an office to coordinate defence lawyers once they are appointed. But the Cambodian judges, unaccustomed to a vigorous defence, have proved reluctant to allow international barristers to conduct a robust scrutiny of the case against the accused.
“Everyone in Cambodia was touched by Pol Pot’s regime, so everyÂone has an opinion,” said Alex Bates, another Briton, who is the senior assistant prosecutor. “After 28 years, everyone thinks they know who the guilty men are. Just put them in prison.”
Both sides are adamant that the process must be transparent and fair, in line with international standards, despite being under the umbrella of the Cambodian judicial system. “It’s absolutely fundamental this trial is clearly fair,” said Skilbeck. “Not just in the interests of the accused, but of the Cambodian people and the Khmer Rouge’s victims. If not, half the population will dismiss it as a sham. We can’t be part of a show trial.”
Diplomats monitoring negotiations accuse the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge member—of deliberately hampering the process, even attempting to scupper it, fearful that embarrassing revelations may emerge.
“The government only wants to be part of a process it can control,” said one senior Western diplomat in Phnom Penh. “It’s not that Hun Sen will be indicted, but one or two top generals could be. What will people say in court? The Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge and are close to Hun Sen’s government. They’ll be making their own calculations about what could come out of this.”
Human rights groups argue that the government is manipulating the Cambodian judges to tie up the discussions. “The Cambodian judicial system is notoriously corrupt and extremely vulnerable to political pressure from the top levels of government,” said Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch.
Vann Nath (62), whose writings and paintings have shone a light on the dark corners of the regime’s gruesome crimes, despairs after waiting almost three decades. One of only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng, he said: “This just goes on and on and I’ve almost lost hope there’ll ever be justice.”—Â
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