Khmer Rouge Trials

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Khmer Rouge Trials


No single issue has been of greater interest to the international community during 1999 than the question of when, or if, the Cambodian government would bring to trial former Khmer Rouge leaders who are now living in the Pailin region of western Cambodia, most notably Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, who surrendered to the Phnom Penh government at the end of December 1998 and who were initially given a red carpet welcome by Hun Sen.

This issue is seen as of great importance for two reasons. First, because of the revulsion felt by so many observers that men who were at the top of the Pol Pot regime should not be brought to account for the horrors which that regime perpetrated. Secondly, the fact that men such as Khieu Samphan should be allowed to live unpunished is seen as a reflection of a broader "culture of impunity" which permeates the whole of Cambodia society and allows wrong-doers at every level to escape the consequences of their criminal actions. Complicating matters even further is the fact that while Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea remain at large, as does Ieng Sary who defected to Phnom Penh much earlier, the government now has two other prominent Khmer Rouge figures in custody. These are Ta Mok, widely regarded as one of the most brutal of the Khmer Rouge leaders, and Duch, the former director of the infamous Tuol Sleng extermination centre. In September, Ta Mok was brought before a military court and charged with genocide, but no date was set for his trial.

At the end of 1999 the issue of Khmer Rouge trials remained unresolved, though a draft law to establish a special tribunal to try the former Khmer Rouge leaders was introduced into parliament in late December. (It was subsequently given parliamentary approval in January 2000.) It remains unclear whether the tribunal to be established under the new law will meet the concerns of the international community and the United Nations. Previously, various proposals had been put to the Cambodian government by the United Nations which would have established a special tribunal composed of both Cambodian and foreign judges. Under the new law, there is provision for the presence of foreign judges on a tribunal, but Cambodian judges will be in the majority. Such an arrangement would seem to go some way towards overcoming the problems that have clearly been in Hun Sen's mind as he contemplates the question of how any trials should take place. The first concern relates to issues of sovereignty. While the international community, through the United Nations, but with the notable exception of China, has argued that the Cambodian justice system does not have the necessary expertise to conduct a proper trial of the former Khmer Rouge leaders, the Cambodian government questions the right of outsiders to dictate how it should conduct its affairs.

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