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Khmer Rouge Tribunal Lawyer Resigns Over Lack of Funding for Victim Participation

FILE - A man cleans a skull near a mass grave at the Chaung Ek torture camp run by the Khmer Rouge in this undated photo.
FILE - A man cleans a skull near a mass grave at the Chaung Ek torture camp run by the Khmer Rouge in this undated photo.

An international lawyer representing hundreds of victims of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in a special tribunal has resigned because the United Nations-backed court failed to provide enough funding for the participation of Cambodians bringing charges in the trials.

In a letter to the Supreme Court Chamber, International Civil Party Lead Co-Lawyer Megan Hirst resigned, stating that the court’s Office of Administration did not fund communication between the victims and their lawyers and cut funding for her position in 2021.

Megan Hirst resignation letter

Since the trials began, 3,865 victims of the 1970s regime have been registered as so-called Civil Parties in the trials. They are represented by a team of 20 international and local lawyers. The Khmer Rouge killed nearly 2 million people through starvation, torture, forced labor or bludgeoning as the regime tried, and failed, to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient agrarian utopia envisioned by the regime’s founder, Pol Pot who died in 1998.

“[O]ur team has lost essential human resources, with a significant impact on our ability to represent the Civil Parties. However, the decisive issue has been another, even more fundamental matter. We are without resources to enable meetings between the Civil Parties and their legal representatives,” Hirst wrote in a letter seen by VOA Khmer.

She continued in the letter to say lawyers were able to meet with only some 5% of victims. “The overwhelming majority of Civil Parties do not know what has occurred at the ECCC over the past few years, or what will happen after the final judgment,” she wrote.

The court, which is officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), is expected to wrap up all proceedings this year after the Supreme Court Chamber makes a decision on the final appeal by Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, against the verdict in Case 002/02. He is the last surviving Khmer Rouge leader and has refused to accept his 2018 conviction for genocide against Cambodia's Muslim Cham and ethnic Vietnamese.

Hirst said the lack of communication had also prevented lawyers from consulting the victims on the important issue of archiving and public access to court documents, which include personal details about the crimes and traumas they suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Lack of funding, contact with Civil Parties

Since its inception in 2006, the hybrid Cambodian and international tribunal has cost more than $300 million. It sentenced three defendants — torture center chief “Comrade Duch” in 2010 and top Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in 2018 — to life imprisonment for war crimes, genocide, torture and other crimes.

Duch, convicted of overseeing the mass murder of at least 14,000 Cambodians at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, died in prison in September 2020. Nuon Chea died protesting the charges in August 2019.

But the ECCC had a record of failing to provide funding for the lawyers to meet the Civil Parties and only three lawyers were remunerated by the court for their judicial work.

The lawyers were expected to raise external funds for their work on behalf of victims. This latter task became harder after the ECCC cut back funding for the few lawyers it does pay and because of diminishing international donor interest, according to Hirst.

This year, lawyers were able to meet only some 200 Civil Parties after they obtained external funding from GIZ, the German government’s development agency, wrote Hirst. She had worked as Civil Party lead co-lawyer since 2019.

The Office of Administration provided no explanation for its lack of support, according to her letter, and court judges earlier ruled that the funding issues were not within their legal purview.

In a reaction, ECCC spokesman Neth Pheaktra told VOA Khmer that the “ECCC continues to support civil parties and the important role they play in judicial proceedings.” He offered no explanation as to what the court was doing to resolve the lack of funds for Civil Parties’ communication with their lawyers.

Peter Maguire, an American law professor and author of Facing Death in Cambodia, said the ECCC had introduced an experimental element of victim participation, which had tested the claims by some legal experts that courts can provide therapeutic “restorative justice” for victims.

Hirst’s resignation, he said, “comes as no surprise and provides further evidence that the ECCC has failed that test.” Maguire asserted that including therapeutic mechanisms for victims had made the court proceeding overly complicated and said the mechanisms should be provided outside of courtrooms instead.

“To ask any court, much less a war crimes court, to heal societies or teach historical lessons is asking too much,” Maguire said.

Consistent rejections

Hong Kim Suon, a national Civil Party co-lawyer since 2008, supported Hirst’s complaint and said his requests for funds to the Office of Administration had been consistently rejected.

“When I protested, they told us that they didn’t have that budget allocation … even though they still have remaining budget,” he said. His tribunal work is funded by his employer, a local NGO called the Cambodia Defenders Project.

“There are many civil parties, but we don’t go to meet them all … We are very frustrated that we don’t have money supporting our work,” he said.

Yun Bin, a Khmer Rouge survivor who is among the Civil Parties, said he rarely heard from his lawyers. “The court doesn’t care much about Civil Parties. They don’t even want to invite Civil Parties [to meet],” he said. “Now two Civil Parties at my home village died already. Another one is seriously sick.”

Yun Bin, 67, survived after he was beaten by Khmer Rouge cadres and left for dead in a pit. He said lawyers had collected testimony about his experience and he had received ECCC funding to attend trial proceedings in Phnom Penh.

But, he said, “I want to meet lawyers and talk more about the suffering. Meeting more often could make me forget the torture that I faced.” He also sought financial reparations for victims and the building of Buddhist stupas to commemorate the deceased victims and relieve their souls.

Yun Bin said the main source of help with his lifelong trauma was the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, a mental health care and psychosocial support NGO that regularly provided him with medicine.

Unfulfilled innovation

The ECCC is among a small number of international criminal court trials and tribunals created in the past two decades that granted victims recognition through a role as Civil Parties in the trial proceedings. “Civil Parties are formal participants in the proceedings against those allegedly responsible for the crimes under investigation by the ECCC, and they enjoy rights broadly similar to the prosecution and the defense,” according to the tribunal’s website. “Becoming a Civil Party not only gives victims the right to actively participate in the proceedings, but it also allows victims to ask the court for collective and moral reparations from the convicted persons.”

The ECCC’s website continues to state that “in this capacity, they are recognized as parties to the proceedings and are allowed to seek collective and moral reparations. This reflects the commitment of the ECCC to its mandate of helping the Cambodian people in the pursuit of justice and national reconciliation.”

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which provided historic documents for the ECCC and raises public awareness about the trials, wrote in an open letter on July 4 that Hirst’s resignation letter of June 13, “underscores an overall failure in living up to the promises we made to the victims in the justice process for the Khmer Rouge.”

“One of the great innovations of the ECCC, compared to previous international criminal courts, is a recognition of the victims in the proceedings,” he wrote, adding that they had the right to be informed about the trials so “they could use the ECCC's work as an opportunity to process their experiences and find some sense of personal closure.”