Cambodian trial of three Khmer Rouge leaders set to begin

UN-backed tribunal into alleged crimes of Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan faces allegations of interference and misconduct

A UN-backed tribunal will begin historic proceedings in Cambodia on Monday against the three highest-ranking surviving members of the Khmer Rouge. But despite initial hopes that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia would finally bring justice three decades after the fall of the brutal communist regime, the court's credibility has been steadily undermined by allegations of political interference, corruption and judicial incompetence.

"Brother No2" Nuon Chea, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and former head of state Khieu Samphan are charged with overseeing a range of crimes, including torture and genocide. The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979, when up to 2 million Cambodians, or one quarter of the population, are estimated to have died.

However, a series of recent controversies has eroded already shaky public confidence in the court. In October, co-investigating judge Siegfried Blunk of Germany resigned after complaining that the Cambodian government was interfering with the tribunal's work. The prime minister, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam, and other government officials have gone on record saying the tribunal should not prosecute suspects beyond those already in detention. Former Khmer Rouge cadres occupy positions throughout the current government, from low-level local leaders to the highest reaches of the ruling Cambodian People's party.

This month, after Judge Blunk's resignation, court watchdogs called for an independent inquiry into allegations of interference and judicial misconduct. "Unless there is an investigation, there will always be questions about how far the political interference has gone into the court," said Clair Duffy, who monitors the tribunal for the Open Society Justice Initiative. "The UN has gone completely silent. What is required is action."

Theary Seng, a prominent lawyer who was orphaned by the Khmer Rouge, on Tuesday withdrew her status as a civil party, one of nearly 4,000 Khmer Rouge survivors who are participating as complainants in the case. "Nothing good can come of Case 002," she said, referring to the trial that starts on Monday. "The court's shenanigans are mocking the memories of my father and my mother and the lives of the 2 million Cambodian victims. It's a sham that's no longer tenable."

The case against Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan has been described by some observers as the most legally complex trial of its kind since Nuremberg. All three defendants have in the past denied their roles in regime crimes and are expected to mount vigorous defences. The court this week dismissed charges against a fourth defendant scheduled to face charges on Monday, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, after finding that she suffered from dementia and was unfit to stand trial.

In July 2010, the court sentenced its first defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to 35 years in prison for his role in running Tuol Sleng detention centre, where at least 15,000 people were tortured and executed. Family members of victims expressed outrage at the perceived leniency of the sentence, which was reduced to 19 years after time served and other technicalities.

Persistent rumours of judicial corruption have also tarnished the court, which began formal proceedings in 2006 under a hybrid structure with both Cambodian and international judges. In 2007, the Open Society Justice Initiative released a report detailing an extensive system of kickbacks among the court's Cambodian judges, many of whom are believed to have bought their jobs.

Despite the court's many problems, some Cambodians remain hopeful. "I welcome the start of the trial," said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. "Monday is a day for us to focus on the victims, and to get some sort of justice and relief."


Dustin Roasa in Phnom Penh

The GuardianTramp

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