On a recent Tuesday, about 200 villagers, many with weathered faces, gathered under a corrugated roof to await that morning’s proceedings of the Khmer Rouge trial. They wore sandals, dark pants, and white shirts. Few of them spoke; all had awoken early that morning for a bus ride over rutted roads from their country village to the courthouse in Phnom Penh, part of the court’s effort to showcase its work to average citizens. In total, since 2009 more than 90,000 Cambodians have attended ECCC hearings, and more than 120,000 others have seen videotapes or school lectures.
Gravely, the spectators filed into the observation area, as a curtain opened on a grand stage before them: More than a dozen berobed lawyers, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, and, in a unique twist, civil attorneys representing the victims, were arrayed on either side of a towering bench. To the audience’s right, two of the four defendants—86-year-old Nuon Chea, the “Brother Number Two” to the late Khmer Rouge leader Pot Pot, and regime diplomat and propagandist Khieu Samphan, who is 81— sat among their attorneys. The two had vastly different demeanors: Khieu, who is mounting a defense on the grounds that he was out of the loop on murderous decision-making, paid rapt attention, murmuring instructions to his lawyers. Nuon, however, wore a rakish pair of sunglasses and scanned the proceedings with an air of dictatorial contempt.
That day’s witness was a 67-year-old former railroad worker, testifying that the Khmer Rouge had provided no food for victims of the 1975 mass evacuation. “I had no thought of helping other people because I was starving myself,” he stated, as officials translated his words from Khmer into a variety of languages. “I was absolutely afraid to say anything at all because I was instructed to stay silent.”
The villagers sat in quiet contemplation, gazing at the giant production; most Cambodian trials aren’t even recorded in writing, let alone dwelt upon by translators, videographers, and court reporters. Indeed, the ECCC is elaborate even by American standards: In addition to investigators, prosecutors, defense teams, civil attorneys, pretrial judges, and trial judges, there is a seven-member Supreme Court that sits over this single trial, just in case an evidentiary issue comes under appeal.
That bureaucratic bulk attests to higher ambitions. The court isn’t merely aiming to put a handful of elderly perpetrators in prison; it’s seeking to record for posterity the Khmer Rouge atrocities. That’s no small task in a nation where, just 33 years after the mass killings of roughly 20 percent of the population, many young people either haven’t heard of the crimes or ascribe them to outside forces, such as the Vietnamese.
The court’s agenda is forward-looking, as well. It aims to teach Western-style trial procedures and courtroom advocacy to a nation whose lawyers and judges were almost completely wiped out by the revolutionary government. “After 1979, there were less than 10 people who were judges and lawyers in the whole country,” recalls He Kranh Tony, the acting chief administrator who is the main link between the court and the Cambodian government. “There is [still] no real administration in the national courts.”
At each level of decision-making, Cambodians work alongside colleagues from the international community—including judges from New Zealand, Austria, Australia, and France. Local officials make up the majority of each panel, but procedures require a super-majority; thus, at least one international jurist must be aligned with the locals before a decision gets made. This was the outcome of a decade of discussions between Cambodian and international officials that began as Cambodia finally emerged from the shadow of the Khmer Rouge, after Pol Pot’s death in 1998.
For average Cambodians and jurists alike, the court has been a revelation, says He Kranh Tony. “They see that we are doing it properly. They see the due process. They see the judges. They see the defense.”
The whole notion of former leaders being forced to answer for their offenses in an open court, rather than being called in secret before the military—or, more likely, simply slipping into exile in a nearby country—is unusual in Cambodia. It’s unusual among many of its neighbors as well. Even in China, where a top official was recently purged for corruption and hiding his wife’s murder of a British businessman, the focus is on political retribution first, justice later. The notion of courts as an independent check on government is literally foreign.Continued...