PHNOM PENH — The United Nations-backed war crimes court in Cambodia is scheduled to begin hearing closing arguments on Wednesday in its landmark first case against the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement, which is blamed for two million deaths during its rule of the country between 1975 and 1979.
The closing arguments, which are scheduled to run for the next two weeks, mark the final chance for the defense, the prosecution and lawyers representing thousands of victims to address the bench.
Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said Wednesday’s proceedings represent a key moment.
“It means that the victims who have waited now for more than 38 years are soon to see at least a judgment coming out against two people accused of being part of the regime that orchestrated mass crimes against the population in Cambodia. So this is of course a milestone, and a step further to some kind of closure for the victims,” said Olsen.
The case began in late 2011 with four elderly defendants. However, last year one of those - former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith - was found to be suffering from dementia and ruled unfit for trial. In March her husband, the former foreign affairs minister, Ieng Sary, died from heart failure.
That left only Nuon Chea, who was Pol Pot’s deputy, and Khieu Samphan, the head of state, from the regime that controlled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
The age of the defendants - both of whom are in their eighties - and the complexity of the indictment led the judges to divide the case against them into a series of mini-trials. It is the first of these mini-trials that the tribunal will start to wrap up this week.
Controversially, though, this first mini-trial ignored the crimes that affected most Cambodians - the slave-like conditions under which the population labored building irrigation systems and planting rice. Hundreds of thousands died.
Instead, it mainly examined the crimes against humanity involved in the forced movement of people.
The first of these took place in the days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge gained power in April 1975, when more than two million residents of urban areas were ordered to leave the cities and were enslaved in the countryside. The second happened over the next two years and saw hundreds of thousands of people moved across the country. A third element of this mini-trial examined a mass killing in 1975 of soldiers from the defeated Khmer Republic.
Long Panhavuth is the program officer with the Cambodia Justice Initiative, a non-profit that monitors the tribunal. He feels this trial marks an important step along the road to ending Cambodia’s culture of impunity but regrets that the scope of the first mini-trial was so limited.
“It’s so worrying whether or not there is the possibility first whether the judgment will be issued on time - when the accused and some of the victims are still surviving - and, second, whether or not there is a new panel or whether or not the ECCC are going to try all the charges according to the indictment,” said Panhavuth.
That second mini-trial will hear charges of genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity in a bid to ensure that it is more representative of the Cambodian people’s suffering. However, the court has not yet said when the second mini-trial will commence. There are fears that illness or death could rob it of one or both of the defendants.
Throughout their first mini-trial, both of the accused have denied the charges against them. Earlier this year, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan did apologize to victims and accepted some responsibility for the crimes of their regime. However, they tempered that by claiming that they had lacked real power and did not know that people were suffering.
Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the leading research organization into the crimes of that period, said that for the Cambodian people the fact that the accused were arrested and put through a judicial process in the first place is more significant than their apologies.
“We know that they never will be released for the rest of their lives unless they die like Ieng Sary. And even if they die in prison, to the Khmer people, I mean, they have been cursed by their bad karma. People look from a social expectation, and having a legal action that will confirm - even though it might not satisfy the justice defined by the book - but for the public these guys are convicted,” said Chhang.
For a large part of their 212-day trial, the defendants declined to answer questions about their alleged roles. Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said that, although the public would have wanted to hear more, the defendants were well within their rights to stay quiet.
“That being said, we have indications that both accused will be speaking during the closing statements to at least give a final account on their versions of the story, so hopefully at least this will be interesting both for victims and other observers,” said Olsen.
The closing arguments are scheduled to run until the end of the month, with the judges expected to deliver their verdict by the middle of next year.