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Awaiting Khmer Rouge Verdict, Cambodian Survivors on Edge

FILE - Khieu Samphan (l), former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, sit in the court room before they made closing statements at the U.N.- backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Oct. 31, 2013.
FILE - Khieu Samphan (l), former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, sit in the court room before they made closing statements at the U.N.- backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Oct. 31, 2013.
Suy HeimkhemraTheara Khoun

The U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal is set to issue a verdict in the first phase of a trial against two aging regime leaders on Thursday, in a greatly anticipated moment for survivors of the regime and a major test of the court’s mandate.  

Nuon Chea, 87, and Khieu Samphan, 82, are facing charges for their roles as leaders within the movement.

Thursday’s verdict will be a landmark for the court, which has only tried and convicted one other Khmer Rouge member so far. But it could also be a disappointment for victims.

Awaiting compensation

At a meeting in Phnom Penh Wednesday, survivors awaiting the verdict anxiously are already disappointed that court has not granted them individual compensation. Many would like a small amount of money with which to perform religious ceremonies for those killed by the regime.

“I want to talk to them and ask them publicly, why haven’t they included our demands for individual compensation?” said Beng Seourn from Svay Rieng province, who had made an official request for money to the court.

Money was not the only thing some people wanted, however. Neang Sokhorn, a survivor from Preah Sihanouk province, said she wanted to receive a special ID card that would allow her free medical care.
 
The tribunal, established in 2006, had a mandate to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge for atrocities and to bring about national reconciliation and possible remediation for survivors. More than 1.7 million died in less than four years under the Khmer Rouge, from overwork, starvation, or execution, leaving major psychic scars on the nation. Thursday’s verdict will have to address those scars.
 
Nou Leakhena, a sociologist who has helped some 170 victims who now live in the US, says time is running out for many survivors who are as old as the men on trial.

Fear of disappointment
 
“Time is almost running out,” she told VOA Khmer in an interview. “I’m worried that they might die before the tribunal finishes its work, because their health is much weaker and they still have received no verdict.”
 
Not only that, but they could find the outcome disappointing. Many were angered by the tribunal’s first verdict, against the torture chief known as Duch, who originally received a commuted sentence of 19 years for his role as supervisor of a major Khmer Rouge detention center. Duch later was given a life sentence, after an appeal from prosecutors.  
 
Nou Leakhena conducted a pre-verdict session last month for those she has been working with, to prepare them for the worst. “In fact, they don’t trust the tribunal 100 percent,” she said. “They have already prepared themselves mentally. We just want them to be prepared more, in case there is no guilty verdict, so that they don’t feel disappointed.”
 
Henry Chhorn, a survivor whose wife’s relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge because of his military service, said he was seeking the “truth” about the regime from the tribunal process. “I have to find justice for those who died,” he said.
 
He said he will join many others who will be watching closely outside the court Thursday as the verdict is read.

Watching together
 
For those who cannot go to the court in Phnom Penh, the Documentation Center of Cambodia will host numerous live broadcasts of the tribunal verdict at 20 sites across 12 provinces, in pagodas, district offices and other public spaces.
 
“The screening will allow all audiences to watch the live verdict pronouncement,” said Ly Sok Kheang, who heads the center’s justice project. “After watching, we will open forums for discussion to allow them to express their ideas about the verdict and heal their traumatic pasts. If they are not satisfied, whatever else they want, we will listen deeply to them. Being a good listener is important to allow them relief from their suffering.”

The first phase of the trial, which is coming to an end, focused on the forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975.

In the second phase of the trial, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are facing charges for atrocity crimes including genocide, allegedly committed by the Khmer Rouge under their leadership.

As many as two million Cambodians died from starvation, overwork and executions during the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, which attempted to create an agrarian communist utopia.

The group's leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 and co-founder Ieng Sary died earlier this year.

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

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