What Kind of Justice, 34 Years After the Khmer Rouge Genocide

As of Thursday morning three men have been publicly held responsible for the murder of nearly 2 million Cambodians. In April of 1975, a fortnight before the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge captured the capital of Cambodia. Pol Pot and his minions set about evacuating Phnom Penh and establishing a forced agrarian society -- Democratic Kampuchea -- that would, over the course of the next four years, leave 25 percent of the population dead.

Thirty-four years later, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC) a quasi-national and international tribunal, is still struggling to extract justice from the dying leaders of a totalitarian regime.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, 88 and 83 respectively, were convicted on Thursday in Trial 002, with crimes against humanity. The judges held them responsible for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, which would lead to the systematic slaughter of the Khmer intelligentsia. In their failed utopia, they acted as Prime Minister and President.

A second trial, on charges of genocide against the pair, has yet to begin.
Trial 002 has staggered over the past three years.

Four orchestrators of genocide originally stood accused in Trial 002. Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister of a regime that despised everything foreign, died last year as court proceedings dragged on. Ieng Sary's wife Ieng Thirith charged with planning and directing mass purges and killings. But she was released two years ago due to her Alzheimer's. She is one of the few Khmer who has been able to forget the horrors of the era.

The many leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, the men and women who worked for the almighty, faceless Angka, are dying off. But almost all remain uncharged. Political influence and corruption continue to pose significant impediments.

The Khmer Rouge's despotic leader Pol Pot never stood accused. He died in his house 16 years ago -- possibly from a heart attack, possibly from suicide -- the same night he learned that he would be tried by an international tribunal. Kaing Guek Eav (nicknamed "Duch"), who headed the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) in a converted school, at the heart of Phnom Penh, is the only other to be convicted.


Yesterday's verdict was broadcast live throughout Cambodia, in a country still haunted by the horrors. Duch's S-21 prison now stands as a museum, blood still staining the tiles of the former classrooms. Limbless beggars hobble the city streets, the breathing evidence of a countryside still seeded with landmines. In the countryside the killing fields of Choeung Ek still bloom, each time it rains, with femurs, molars, skull shards, checkered scarves and baby's flounced jumpers.

Cambodian schools cover the genocide with a cursory sweep. And while all families have stories -- of starvation or slaughter -- and many suffer from PTSD, the years under Pol Pot are rarely discussed.

With the trials so far removed from the genocide it is unclear what form of justice is sought. Are the trials more a cathartic release than an aggressive attempt to extract retribution?

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is located 30 minutes outside Phnom Penh. It is out past the airport, and the high rises and the bustle of the city center, down a long dirt road and a past a nondescript guard post.

Anyone can attend the Tribunal. Every day men and women from the countryside are bused in to watch the halting steps of justice.

When I lived in Phnom Penh, I chose to attend a day of the trials, sitting with wrinkled grandmothers in sarongs who squeezed my arm in approval. They would have been my age during Pol Pot's regime.

The morning I visited the ECCC, the prosecution was in the midst of presenting documentary evidence against Nuon Chea, though at the time he was absent from the courtroom, skyping in from his hospital bed where he was being treated for bronchitis.

Ieng Sary was still alive that morning. He and Khieu Samphan sat silently the entire time, off to the side, behind their lawyers. In the dimmed courtroom, there was an air of Eichmann in Jerusalem, bureaucrats behind glass, who declared their ignorance of the genocide raging outside their offices. They were small men -- wrinkled and sunken-eyed -- disturbingly easy to overlook in the grandeur of the courtroom.