Posted on Tue, Dec. 14, 2004
After so many years, no one has been held accountable. A tribunal is slowly taking shape, but doubts remain.
By Adam FifieldInquirer Staff Writer
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Ieng Sary, round-faced, balding, and slowed by 74 years, visits the Wat Svay Pope Pagoda at least twice a year. It's a peaceful neighborhood temple, and he brings food for the monks. He prays while they chant for him. An ornate memorial stupa beneath the shade trees commemorates his deceased relatives in a country where so many have been lost.
But Sary is different from others still shaken by the Khmer Rouge era.
That's because he helped create it.
And among those the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out were monks. In knowing where his loved ones lie and being able to pray for their repose, Sary enjoys the comforts of a ritual denied his many victims.
In this deeply impoverished country, he owns a sumptuous villa nestled in a nearby quiet block, and leads, as do other leaders accused of genocide, the life of a retired gentleman.
Although there are tribunals for more recent atrocities in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, no one has been held accountable for the 25-year-old crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
As many as 1.7 million people died during their rule.
But in October - after seven years of negotiations and delays - Cambodian lawmakers approved a U.N.-sanctioned agreement to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity. The tribunal, estimated to take three years and cost $56 million, would be presided over by Cambodian and international judges. No defendants have been named, but the court is expected to focus on five to 10 high-ranking figures.
Justice has not been delayed for a lack of evidence. The Documentation Center of Cambodia, a nonprofit organization founded by Yale University, has collected testimony and more than 600,000 pages of documents, mapped 19,521 mass graves, and identified 194 prisons and 80 memorial sites.
One obstacle was an ongoing civil war, which made peace the country's top priority until 1998. And Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been accused of hindering the process.
But many scholars, historians and human-rights organizations say the blame should also be spread throughout the international community.
"The country never mattered, that's the heart of it all," said David Chandler, a prominent Cambodia scholar. "So geopolitics took over from human-rights considerations."
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, not only did the United States and other countries fail to stop the Khmer Rouge, but they also backed the regime even after Vietnam removed it from power. Cambodia became a pawn in Cold War politics.
In 1979, the administration of President Jimmy Carter voted in favor of a Khmer Rouge bid to represent Cambodia at the United Nations. This policy of diplomatic support continued through the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
By recognizing the Khmer Rouge - the enemy of its enemy, Vietnam - the United States exacerbated the suffering of millions of Cambodians.
"What I would really like to know is, does President Carter regret this?" said Tom Fawthrop, the coauthor of a new book called Getting Away With Genocide? "And should he not apologize to the Cambodian people for prolonging their misery?"
In response to an interview request, the Carter Center sent a statement Carter made in 1978 condemning the Khmer Rouge as "the worst violator of human rights in the world today." It also included a chapter from then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's memoir in which he explains the U.N. vote, saying "we could not afford the far-reaching consequences of a vote that would isolate us" from allies.
• The tribunal's five most likely defendants are men who set and carried out the policies that devastated the country.
Known as Brother Number Three, Ieng Sary was the Khmer Rouge foreign minister. He was a confidant of the enigmatic leader Pol Pot, Brother Number One. According to scholars and legal experts, significant evidence suggests that he promoted arrests and executions. He has denied it.
Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge leader alive, allegedly devised and carried out execution policies. He has admitted he made "mistakes" but denied he was guilty of genocide.
Former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan, who lives freely in the former stronghold of Pailin, was the public face of the regime. Experts say evidence shows he knew about the atrocities and failed to stop them. Earlier this year he published a memoir contending he knew nothing about them.
"These are the people who gave the orders. They didn't take the orders," Cambodia scholar Chandler said. Chandler wrote a biography of Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Two other likely defendants are in jail awaiting trial in Phnom Penh. The one-legged Ta Mok, known as "the Butcher," was a ruthless military commander. He is widely implicated in the killing. His attorney says he intends to call Carter, Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher as witnesses in his defense.
Kang Kek Ieu, known as Duch, ran the notorious torture center Tuol Sleng, and the evidence against him is overwhelming. He has admitted overseeing executions and torture. One document lists 17 adults and children. At the bottom Duch signed his name and wrote: "Kill them all."
Although Duch's tenure as the head of Tuol Sleng is well-documented, his attorney, Ka Savuth, insists he was only a deputy. Savuth said Duch "is happy to stand trial and tell everything to the court."
At least 14,000 people were tortured at Tuol Sleng and then executed. The site is now a genocide museum. "It's a good museum," Savuth said.
•Advocates say a tribunal is essential to reestablish a moral foundation for Cambodia.
"We live in a broken society," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. "We have completely lost trust among ourselves, among our neighbors, among our people... . This has completely destroyed our soul... .
"When you fail to prosecute the Khmer Rouge leaders, it's not logical to prosecute those who commit lesser crimes... . It allows people to use the Khmer Rouge to do bad things."
Chhang and many advocates, scholars and politicians say the absence of justice has, in part, spawned a "culture of impunity" in Cambodia, where mob killings and political assassinations blight the society. The country's judiciary has remained weak and susceptible to corruption.
"You have to start putting things right at the top for the biggest crimes and the biggest
offenses," opposition politician Sam Rainsy said.
Human-rights groups have questioned whether the tribunal will be effective.
"I think there's reason for skepticism, because there are so many things that can be put in the way," said Brad Adams, director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Since negotiations for a tribunal began, Hun Sen, the nation's prime minister, has balked at cooperating with the United Nations and has made wildly contradictory statements, supporting a tribunal and opposing it.
In 1998, after Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan surrendered to the government, Hun Sen welcomed them warmly. He said Cambodia should "dig a hole and bury the past." In 1996, Ieng Sary was granted a royal amnesty at Hun Sen's request.
Hun Sen wants a trial to proceed, spokesman Khieu Kanharith said. "The government is ready to give a free hand to the judge," he said. "This shows the determination of the government to find justice."
Craig Etcheson, a leading Khmer Rouge expert and author of the forthcoming book After the Killing Fields: Lessons From the Cambodian Genocide, stressed the importance of holding a tribunal, even an imperfect one, sooner rather than later.
"If we wait for an enlightened regime to emerge," he said, "all of the suspects will be long dead. So, in my view, the better thing is to achieve what's possible now but not to forget that more needs to be done as it becomes possible."
• The last remaining hurdle for the tribunal appears to be money. Australia has pledged $2.1 million, France $1 million and Japan $3 million. Last week, President Bush signed the omnibus appropriations bill, which also prohibited the funneling of American dollars toward any
Cambodian tribunal unless the judiciary is independent and free of corruption. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said the process can begin only after the first year of funding is secured and financial pledges are made for the full three years.
Hun Sen had said Cambodia would contribute facilities, utilities and security, but little else. However, on Friday, it was announced that Cambodia would provide $13 million.
Philadelphia's Cambodians are frustrated and remain skeptical that any accounting will occur.
"Saddam has been arrested," said Chamroeun Nhay, a social worker in North Philadelphia.
"How about the Khmer Rouge that kill millions of people?"
Chea Meas, who runs a travel agency in South Philadelphia and who lost many relatives during the Khmer Rouge era, said that if the tribunal is ever mounted, he will travel to witness it.
"We have waited long enough," he said. "I have three kids already. I want to see a trial tomorrow."