PHNOM PENH — The clock is ticking at Cambodia's Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, where the two elderly defendants are in poor health and funds vital for bringing some semblance of justice for the horrors of the “Killing Fields” era are fast drying up.
On trial are 87-year-old “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former president Khieu Samphan, 81, the right-hand men of the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, whose dream of a peasant utopia claimed as many as 2.2 million Cambodian lives from 1975-1979.
The hybrid U.N.-Cambodian tribunal has so far reached a verdict in just one case, the life sentence in 2010 for Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch”, chief of the S-21 torture center where 14,000 people died. Prosecutors face a race against time to ensure Duch is not alone.
They are asking for life imprisonment for the two cadres in a complex case being fast-tracked to salvage something from a court set up in 2005 ostensibly to bring Cambodians closure for one of the darkest, bloodiest chapters of the twentieth century.
Khieu Samphan was no figurehead, but a “skilful, manipulative” leader, while Nuon Chea was as much an extremist today as he was when almost a quarter of Cambodians died of execution, starvation, torture or disease, international deputy prosecutor William Smith said in his final arguments.
International civil party lawyer Christine Martineau launched a scathing attack on the defendants' claims they had no role in directing the bloodshed.
“You followed Pol Pot until his last day, you were the two men he trusted. You never distanced yourself from him,” Martineau told the court last week.
“You continue to lie to this day.”
Time and funds running out
The words have made little dent on the defendants. Khieu Samphan showed no emotion throughout the final arguments that began last week and for long periods he sat with his eyes shut.
The former Khmer Rouge cadres are all that remains from case 002, which initially had four defendants charged with crimes against humanity and genocide, among other offenses.
Many fear that only Khieu Samphan will live to hear his verdict. Nuon Chea is in poor health and has attended much of the proceedings via video from his cell. Former foreign minister Ieng Sary died earlier this year and his wife, former social affairs minister, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and declared unfit for trial.
To try to secure a conviction, Case 002 was broken up into smaller cases. The current hearing is about their alleged role in the forced evacuation of the Phnom Penh in 1975 and execution of government troops. The court expects a verdict within the first half of next year.
Kuy Ke, a 62-year-old rural farmer, said he feared facing Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in the afterlife if there was no ruling soon.
“We want punishment,” he said. “In one to two years, they will die.”
There are more Khmer Rouge members under investigation and two generals, Meas Mut and Sou Met, faced possible indictment. Sou Met died in June, however, and it was unclear if Meas Mut would ever appear before the tribunal.
Due process takes time the court does not appear to have. It also takes funding from increasingly reluctant donor countries, $173 million from 2006-2012, and three foreign judges have quit, two citing “political interference”.
Cambodia's government, which includes some former Khmer Rouge members, has not helped much either. It is obliged to foot the bill for the local staff and running costs of the chamber, but instead asks for donations, fuelling claims it wants to ensure no more cases go to court.
Activists and rights groups fear it will get its way.
“With uncertain foreign funding, government obstruction and concerns about the health of the accused, the likelihood of such trials occurring are slim at best,” the Cambodia Center for Human Rights said in a tribunal briefing.