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September 09, 2013

Strike, Resignation Cast Doubts on Khmer Rouge Tribunal

by Sok Khemara, Colin Lovett

A strike over unpaid wages and the resignation of the top international prosecutor are returning the spotlight to the troubles facing Cambodia's U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. Many are wondering if the court will be able to finish trying those blamed for the country's genocide in the 1970s.

The Khmer Rouge regime is blamed for the deaths of nearly two million people during its four-year rule from 1975 to 1979.

At first, justice was delayed by Cambodia's nearly two decade-long civil war, which ended in the late 1990s.  When peace returned, it took until 2006 before the United Nations and the government in Phnom Penh were able to open a joint tribunal.

But the court has been plagued by funding problems, as well as allegations of mismanagement and political interference.

However, evidence for use at the trials has been overwhelming. Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says he and his group have a mountain of documents detailing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and its leadership.

"So far I have collected over [a] million documents of evidence," he said. "I have maps of about 20,000 mass graves and each grave has over 1,000 bodies. I have maps of over 100 prisons, where each prison has between 10,000 to 15,000 prisoners who were killed and few survived. I have collected hundreds of thousands of photographs of victims of crimes of the leadership."

Despite the evidence, the court has handed down only one conviction in seven years, and the advanced age of the remaining defendants has cast doubt on the prospects of finishing the hearings while they are still alive or able to participate.

​​Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, both in their 80s, are the only senior Khmer Rouge leaders alive and considered fit to stand trial. They deny the charges against them. The group's leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 and co-founder Leng Sary died earlier this year.

Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch," was sentenced last year to life in prison for his role in killing more than 14,000 while running the Tuol Sleng torture and execution center in Phnom Penh.

Other cases involving younger, more junior members of the Khmer Rouge regime are still in the investigative stage and it is unclear if they will come to trial.

The problems with the court have led some observers to question whether there is enough political commitment to continue funding the court.

Open Society Justice Initiative executive director James Goldston says it would be a tragedy if the remaining cases are not completed.

“I think the work stoppages, which is what we are seeing at the court, are evidence of the extremity of the problem, and there is a need for donors and for the Cambodian government to face up to their responsibility, to finish what they started," Goldston said. "If ultimately funds are not secured to allow the existing Case 002 to be completed, or other cases which are in the investigation stage, to reach their judicial conclusion, that would be a profound failure."

This month, nearly 200 of the 250 staff members on the Cambodian side went on strike because of unpaid wages dating back to May.

Khmer Rouge researcher Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia," says staff walkouts signal another failure for the beleaguered court.

“With two of the four defendants dead or out of commission, the [tribunal] has failed to do even half of the things the U.N. and their cheerleaders in the human rights industry promised," Maguire said. "Cambodia’s mixed tribunal will serve as a cautionary tale of how not to conduct a war crimes trial. The U.N. should shut up about further trials already; they need to finish trying the senile defendants and pack it up.”

The crisis has prompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to issue a statement saying "the very survival of the court is now in question," and "financial failure would be a tragedy for the people of Cambodia."

Youk Chhang says it is critical for the United Nations and Cambodia not to loose sight of the goal for the court.

"'I think it is important for the court to look at this mission as a mission for justice, a mission to bring about a process so that the people of Cambodia can use it as a foundation to move on," he said.

Even if the strike is ended and the court resumes its normal operations, its long term prospects will remain in question.   

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.