Khmer Rouge trial fraught with drama in Cambodia

As a U.N.-backed Cambodian tribunal opens Monday to try former Khmer Rouge leaders charged with genocide, critics accuse the Cambodian government of meddling and the United Nations of failing to uphold the court’s independence.

Standing trial are the four highest-ranking surviving former Khmer Rouge leaders: head of state Khieu Samphan, 79; Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 85; his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, 79; and the revolution’s chief ideologue, Nuon Chea, 84. They face multiple charges that include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Last July, in the first trial of Khmer leaders, former prison commandant Comrade Duch was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The current case, considered one of the most complex and historically significant war crimes trials since Nuremberg, is expected to last longer and be trickier than the first, in part because the defendants ruled through proxies.

International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley, a Briton, also faces a roster of hard-hitting defense lawyers, including Jacques Verges, a Frenchman dubbed “terror’s advocate” for his success in defending those charged with war crimes.


The controversy surrounding the proceedings focuses on whether charges should be levied against more former regime members than the initial five. An estimated 1.7 million people died of starvation, overwork, medical neglect and execution during the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 reign.

Trying more alleged mass murderers is controversial in Cambodia because many prominent figures today have links to the former regime. Those in favor of widening the investigation — currently two more cases involving five suspects are under consideration — have met multiple roadblocks.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former mid-ranking cadre, has said he would rather have the tribunal fail than see more than two trials. He told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in October that additional cases were “not allowed.”

Five international members of the court’s investigating branch recently quit to protest what they felt were intentionally scuttled probes into additional suspects.

One of them, author and Khmer Rouge expert Stephen Heder, criticized investigating judges in his resignation letter for shutting down a proposed third case “effectively without investigating it.”

Heder described the court’s investigations office as a “toxic atmosphere of mutual mistrust” and “professionally dysfunctional.”

In the proposed third case, judges conducted only pro forma interviews of witnesses and visits to alleged crime sites without informing suspects that they might face trial, said legal advocacy group Open Society Justice Initiative in a report.

“Everything leads to the conclusion that the Case 3 investigation has been a charade,” said Clair Duffy, a court monitor with Justice Initiative.


Additional trials could target second-tier Khmer Rouge leaders allegedly responsible for implementing some of the regime’s most deadly policies. This could embarrass the prime minister, given that some in his inner political circle held Khmer Rouge posts of that rank, analysts said. Hun Sen has a different explanation: With former cadres distributed across the country, intense judicial scrutiny could spark uprisings and destabilize the country.

U.N. participation in the tribunal was supposed to shelter the court from political meddling and act as a legal model for Cambodia’s shaky judiciary, which is marred by poor training, manipulation and corruption.

The U.N. has made repeated statements affirming the importance of judicial independence, although Duffy charged that those are little more than empty words if the international body doesn’t defend that principle.

Ban’s office said charges of political interference amount to “media speculation.”


“My greatest concern is that we maintain the trust of the people,” Cayley said.

Brady is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.