The slow death of justice: Demise of key suspect leaves Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal with only one conviction

Some question whether the
costly process is worth it

Phnom Penh

When the ornately decorated court complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh opened its doors in the summer of 2007 it was seen as a milestone in Cambodia's tortured journey towards justice.

Survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed up to 1.7 million of its own citizens, flocked to see the first defendant, a slight, wiry prison commander called Kaing Guek Eav, brought before the judges.

"I want to confront him, to ask who gave him the orders to kill the Cambodian people, said Chum Mey, one of just a handful of survivors from the Tuol Sleng jail, from which Kaing Guek Eav - also known as Comrade Duch - dispatched up to 14,000 people to the killing fields.

Yet six years on, the tribunal is confronting little short of a crisis. In the latest of a series of setbacks, one of three elderly defendants standing trial for war crimes has died in hospital. Some of the same people who celebrated when the tribunal began now say it has become a sham and should be halted.

Survivors of the Maoist-inspired regime said the death yesterday of Ieng Sary, 87, who served as the regime's foreign minister, highlighted a complaint they had repeatedly made - namely that the slow pace of the trial is undermining justice.

"I'm very disappointed that Ieng Sary escaped justice, escaped the trial," said Ou Virak, whose father was killed by the regime and who now heads the Cambodian Human Rights Centre. "This is exactly what we have been saying. There is no time to waste."

Theary Seng, whose parents were also killed and who spent time as a child in forced labour camps, said it was not surprising young Cambodians were taking to social media to call for the UN-backed tribunal to be halted. She said the UN should invoke its legal right to end the trial.

"This tribunal is a war of attrition," said Ms Seng, who wrote about her experiences in a memoir, Daughter of the Killing Fields. "The death of Ieng Sary is another example of how we, the victims, are losing???"

The death of the man who was among the regime's most recognisable faces leaves only two senior members now on trial - Nuon Chea, the regime's ideologist and right-hand man of its leader Pol Pot, and the former president, Khieu Samphan.

As it is, a team of doctors is due to check the medical condition of 86-year-old Nuon Chea next week, to determine whether he is well enough to continue being tried. In 2011, the court decided that Ieng Thirith, the only female leader to be charged, was unfit to continue with the proceedings after she was found to be suffering from dementia.

The tribunal has been rocked by difficulties since it began. The most significant challenge has been political interference from the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia's Prime Minister and himself a former officer with the Khmer Rouge.

His influence has resulted, in effect, in a block on expanding the number of suspects to be tried. Experts had suggested there was sufficient evidence to bring several other former Khmer Rouge leaders before the tribunal, but the moves were opposed by Cambodian authorities.

Such was the scale of interference that, in October 2011, one of the investigating judges, Siegfried Blunk, quit his post in frustration. The interference has also slowed proceedings.

The unwillingness of the Cambodian authorities to engage with the tribunal has also been exposed in other ways. In recent weeks, the trial's proceedings ground to a halt after local staff went on strike, complaining that they had not been paid for months. Hun Sen is responsible for paying the salaries of Cambodian staff.

Activists had insisted that however painful the tribunal might be it was an unavoidable undertaking if Cambodia wished to move forward from its dark, recent past. Perhaps a quarter of Cambodia's population was murdered or else starved to death between April 1975 and January 1979, when they were forced from the cities and made to work on farms.

The tribunal has also raised uncomfortable questions for many of the world's leading nations, some of which are funding the £115m project. China openly supported the regime, while a number of countries, including the UK, allowed the Khmer Rouge to retain Cambodia's seat at the UN General Assembly after they were ousted from power by Vietnamese troops.

The tribunal has also drawn attention to the brutalising effect of the massive secret bombing campaign of the US in Cambodia and Laos, directed against Khmer Rouge and South Vietnamese forces and which some historians have argued created the circumstances for the Khmer Rouge to seize power.

Yet the achievements of the tribunal have so far been modest. Only Comrade Duch has been convicted. He was found guilty of war crimes in 2010 and sentenced to 19 years in jail.

The frustrations now being voiced among ordinary Cambodians may have reached unprecedented levels. Darathtey Din, an international relations student, saw the news about Ieng Sary's death on her Facebook feed, and quickly typed out her thoughts.

"I say, put an end to the tribunal to save money for development in other fields because it seems like the former Khmer Rouge leaders die because of old age, one by one before any verdict can be made," she wrote.

Another student, 23-year-old Suon Sopheaktra, wrote that it was essential that the court redoubled its efforts before the public lost all hope.

"We would all regret if the huge amount of money the international donors have poured into this court is in vain, especially when the court has been delayed time and again with the threats from a very powerful person," he wrote.

Yesterday, Lars Olsen, a spokesman for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, said Mr Ienghad died in the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, where he had been admitted on 4 March. "He has been suffering from intestinal problems," said Mr Olsen. "He has been hospitalised several times during the last year."

Mr Ieng's body was being taken to Malai in western Cambodia, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold where his family lives, for his funeral.

When Mr Ieng was arrested in 2007, he refused to co-operate with the court, insisting that he had been pardoned by King Norodom Sihanouk. The tribunal ruled that the pardon did not cover its indictment against him and that he had to stand trial. On Wednesday, the court issued a statement formally announcing that proceedings against him had been discontinued.

ON TRIAL: FIGURES OF FEAR

KHIEU SAMPHAN

Joined the Khmer Rouge in the late 1960s, became Head of State for Democratic Kampuchea in 1976 and succeeded the leader, Pol Pot in 1987. Samphan was arrested in 2007, and is on trial for crimes against humanity and genocide. The 81-year-old, who has suffered a stroke, denies the charges.

NUON CHEA

Known as Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea was Pol Pot's deputy and chief ideologist. Like Samphan, he is accused of crimes against humanity and genocide between 1975 and 1979. Now 86, he too is in frail health and denies the charges.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home