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In Cambodia, Aging Khmer Rouge Leaders Go On Trial

Nov 22, 2011
Originally published on November 22, 2011 1:40 pm

In Cambodia this week, three elderly men are sitting in a courtroom, accused of atrocities that took place in the 1970s.

The three former leaders of the radical Khmer Rouge are on trial for their role in a regime that exterminated more than 2 million people — or roughly a quarter of the country's population.

The Khmer Rouge was forced from power more than three decades ago, its former leaders are growing old, and this may be the final trial held by the U.N.-backed tribunal.

Dressed in a black barrister's gown and speaking through a translator, co-prosecutor Chea Leng summed up the case to the tribunal's five foreign and Cambodian judges.

"The evidence we will put before you will show that the Communist Party of Kampuchea turned Cambodia into a massive slave camp, reducing an entire nation to prisoners living under a system of brutality that defies belief," she said.

The regime's chief ideologue, Nuon Chea, the head of state, Khieu Samphan, and its foreign minister, Ieng Sary, listened mutely to the proceedings. Their trials have been divided into segments in hopes of reaching some verdict before they die off.

The three, all in their 80s, have maintained their innocence.

Accounts Of Mass Killings

But Chea Leng linked the trio to policies that resulted in the deaths of up to 2.2 million people. She cited a witness account of when the Khmer Rouge forced the evacuation of the capital Phnom Penh in April 1975.

"Along the road, I saw the bodies of people who had died. They were already shriveled up, and people had walked on top of them. Some of them had been eaten by dogs. Death was everywhere," Chea Leng quoted the witness as saying.

Several thousand victims of the Khmer Rouge are preparing to file civil suits against their former oppressors and will seek symbolic reparations. They come from around the country and around the world.

Among them is former schoolteacher Sophany Bay, who now lives in San Jose, Calif. She says her three children were starved and beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge.

"I want to hear from the three top leaders, because they denied [their role]; they never apologized to the people," she said. "I want to know who was involved in these crimes."

Despite the millions of Cambodians who suffered under Khmer Rouge rule, surprisingly few are participating in the tribunal. Some claim they're being unfairly excluded from the proceedings.

But it's not just the victims who complain of injustice.

Nuon Chea's Dutch lawyer, Michiel Pestman, has filed a criminal complaint, accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen and other officials of interfering in the tribunal's proceedings.

"This government has prevented important witnesses from testifying in my case," Pestman said. "I think that is a crime, and something should be done about that. But my client knows he's going to be convicted and sentenced, whatever the evidence there is against him."

Some victims say the ideal reparations for them would be some kind of memorial, or something to help people remember this horrific chapter, even as they seek to put it behind them.

The Venerable Khy Sovanratana, abbot of Phnom Penh's Mongkulvan Buddhist temple, says he helps many Cambodians to face their traumatic memories in order to overcome them.

"We try to console them that this kind of thing can happen in our life, or in previous life," he said. "We should try to get rid of those suffering, those obsessions, then try to move on."

He is confident there will be justice for Cambodia — if not criminal justice, then at least karmic justice.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Three elderly men are sitting in a courtroom in Cambodia this week, accused of unbelievable atrocities. The men are the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge. That's the communist regime that ran Cambodia in the '70s. It exterminated roughly a quarter of the Cambodian people, and tortured, starved or imprisoned many more.

This trial might be the last chance for the U.N.-backed tribunal hearing the case to offer the victims some kind of justice, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Phnom Penh.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Dressed in a black barrister's gown and speaking through a translator, co-prosecutor Chea Leng summed up the case against the communist Khmer Rouge.

CHEA LENG: (Through translator) The evidence we will put before you will show that the Communist Party of Kampuchea turned Cambodia into a massive slave camp, reducing an entire nation to prisoners living under a system of brutality that defies belief to the present day.

KUHN: The regime's chief ideologue, Nuon Chea, its head of state Khieu Samphan, and its foreign minister Ieng Sary listened mutely to the proceedings. Their trials have been divided into segments in hope of reaching some verdict before they die off.

The three have maintained their innocence. But Chea Leng linked the trio to policies that resulted in the death of up to 2.2 million people. Speaking through another translator, the prosecutor cited an eyewitness account of the forced evacuation of the capital in April, 1975.

LENG: (Through translator) Along the road, I saw the bodies of people who had died. They were already shriveled up, and people had walked on top of them. Some of the bodies had been eaten by dogs. Death was everywhere.

KUHN: Several thousand victims of the Khmer Rouge are preparing to file civil suits against their former oppressors and seek symbolic reparations. They come from around the country and around the world. Among them is former Phnom Penh schoolteacher Sophany Bay, who now lives in San Jose, California. She saw her three children starved and beaten to death by the Khmer Rouge.

SOPHANY BAY: I want to hear from the three top leaders, because they denied, they never apologized to the people. If they deny, they say I did not do, who did? Who did?

KUHN: Victims are frustrated that the tribunal has dragged on for five years, spent around $150 million and produced only one conviction so far. But it's not just the victims who complain of injustice. Nuon Chea's Dutch lawyer, Michiel Pestman, has filed a criminal complaint accusing the government of interfering in the tribunal's proceedings.

MICHIEL PESTMAN: This government has prevented important witnesses from testifying in my case. I think that's a crime, and something should be done about that. But my client knows that he's going to be convicted and sentenced, whatever the evidence there is against him.

KUHN: Victims say the ideal reparations for them would be some kind of memorial, or something to help people remember this horrific chapter in history, even as they seek to put it behind them.

The Venerable Khy Sovanratana, abbot of Phnom Penh's Mongkulvan Buddhist Temple, says he helps many Cambodians to face their traumatic memories.

KHY SOVANRATANA: We try to console them that this kind of thing can happen in our life or in previous life. We should try to get rid of those suffering, those obsessions, then try to move on.

KUHN: He is confident that there will be justice for Cambodia. If not criminal justice, then at least karmic justice.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Phnom Penh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.