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Cambodia’s Nuon Chea Ruled Fit for Trial

In this photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Nuon Chea, listens to testimony during his trial at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 20, 2013.
Judges at Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal ruled Friday that the most senior surviving member of the ultra-Maoist movement, 86-year-old Nuon Chea, is fit for trial. That decision comes days after a health hearing for the ailing defendant, and just two weeks after his co-accused, Ieng Sary, died.

Nuon Chea was not in court to hear the judges’ decision, but the ruling will likely come as no surprise. Although the elderly defendant suffers from a number of health complaints, including heart disease, dizziness and fatigue, two experts told the court earlier this week that he was mentally and physically capable.

On Friday, the president of the court, Nil Nonn, said that testimony was conclusive: Nuon Chea was fit for trial. The voice you can hear is that of the court translator.

“Notwithstanding the advanced age and frailty of the accused, Nuon Chea, and the accused’s precarious physical health, the recent report and testimony of the court-appointed medical experts clearly indicate that the accused remains capable of meaningful participation in his own defense,” he said.

Friday’s decision comes amid heightened fears that the slow-moving court will run out of defendants before it hands down any judgments.

Ieng Sary and his wife in November 1996 during the defection ceremony of Ieng Sary in Pailin. (Youk Chhang/Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives)
Ieng Sary and his wife in November 1996 during the defection ceremony of Ieng Sary in Pailin. (Youk Chhang/Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives)
Earlier this month, the former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, died of heart failure at age 87. Last year, his widow, the former social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith, who has dementia, was ruled unfit for trial.

That has left just two former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to face charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Case Two: Nuon Chea and the former head of state Khieu Samphan, who is 81. They have denied all charges.

When the trial of the four began in late 2011, it was those very issues of age and health that led the trial chamber to divide the complex indictment into a series of mini-trials.

Mini-trial one - which is ongoing - is looking at just two sets of crimes: a torture and execution site, and the forced movement of people in 1975.

At the time, the judges said the bulk of the remaining charges - including crimes such as forced marriage, enslavement and genocide - would be heard later in other mini-trials.

Last month, the tribunal’s highest body ordered judges to reassess the decision to sever Case Two in 2011 because they failed to consult with other parties to the trial, such as the prosecution and the defense. Also of concern was the fact that the crimes within mini-trial one were not representative of the broader indictment.

On Friday, the trial chamber said it had looked into the decision, and announced that it would carry on as before: looking solely at one execution site and the forced movement of people.

Leakhena Nou is the executive director of ASRIC, the U.S.-based organization that represents more than 170 Cambodian-American victims.

Nou, who was in court Friday to hear the decision, says the ruling will disappoint ASRIC’s members. For many of them, the crimes in mini-trial one do not reflect their experiences under the Khmer Rouge.

“Does that mean if you don’t fall under forced movement or you weren’t a victim at the execution center that your victimization means nothing?" she asked. "So by expanding other crimes that we had mentioned - genocide and forced marriage - at least it would be more inclusive of all the victims who may have a chance to find justice. So I think on behalf of the survivors, it’s quite disappointing.”

Around two million people died in less than four years under the Khmer Rouge, most from execution, starvation, overwork and disease. The survivors experienced appalling hardship.

Forced marriage, for instance, is listed as a crime against humanity and affected an estimated 200,000 Cambodians. More than 650 of nearly 4,000 survivors registered with the tribunal for Case Two were forcibly married by the Khmer Rouge, which controlled every aspect of Cambodians’ lives.

Nou understands that the court is struggling to balance a multitude of issues, including a lack of funding, and that it needs to keep moving ahead to reach a resolution, but she says it is coming unfairly at the cost of the survivors.

“I mean this is the one chance of a lifetime for the survivors to seek justice, and if this is all the court can deliver, I really don’t think it’s a very comprehensive form of justice,” she added.

Also on Friday the court said that hearings would resume on April 8. They had been suspended in recent months due to the ill health of defendants and because of a strike by unpaid Cambodian staff members.