This morning, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – better known at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – handed down its first verdict in Case 002, against two of the most senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge: Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Both were convicted of crimes against humanity – including murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts – undertaken as part of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) and sentenced to life in prison.
The guilty verdict is a welcome step forward in achieving justice for the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge. But with the first verdict against senior leaders* coming down over 35 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, there are concerns that justice will mean too little at this point in time, especially as many of the Khmer Rouge’s survivors have passed away in the meantime.
These concerns are compounded by the fact that this verdict is only for a small section of the charges brought forth in Case 002. Due to the scope represented by Case 002, the ECCC decided to split the case into a series of “mini-trials” – the verdict delivered today is for Case 002/01, which only looked at the forced movement of the population from Phnom Penh (Phase I) and later from other regions (Phase II), and at the execution of soldiers of the Khmer Republic at the Toul Po Chrey execution site, which took place at the very beginning of the Khmer Rouge period – leaving many issues to be tried during future “mini-trials.”
There are also concerns that the defendants’ advanced age – Khieu Samphan is 83 and Nuon Chea is 88 – they may not live long enough to face all charges under Case 002. This concern is a real one, as there were originally two other defendants in Case 002: Ieng Thirith, who was declared unfit to stand trial due to dementia in late 2012 and thus released, and her husband Ieng Sary, who passed away in March 2013.
Nevertheless, Case 002/01 has also looked at the roles of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea in developing Khmer Rouge regime policies related to all charges of Case 002 (not just Case 002/01), which will play a role in how the remaining charges are examined during future mini-trials. This verdict, which found them guilty of committing crimes as part of a joint criminal enterprise, will influence how evidence and testimonies are examined in the next phases of Case 002.
With the second “mini-trial” of Case 002, Case 002/02, also starting this month, this is an important time for justice in Cambodia. And with the state of the Cambodian judiciary a major hurdle to addressing Cambodia’s human rights crisis, many still hope that the ECCC will leave a positive legacy on domestic courts.
In an AP story published in the Washington Post ahead of the verdict, Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, puts it perfectly:
Whether, in the end, Cambodians will believe the court was worth the time and the expense is a question that can only be answered in the future by looking at whether the court contributes to a culture that rejects impunity and respects rule of law, and whether Cambodians have a sense that substantial justice for Khmer Rouge atrocities has been delivered.