Cambodia’s War Crimes Court at snail pace

By Jonathan Power

Dateline: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

At the end of World War 2, when the three allies, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union, were considering what to do with the top German political and military leaders, Winston Churchill had no compunction in saying they should be taken out of their cells and shot. Franklin Roosevelt persuaded him that a trial was more in order. Stalin went along with this.

A trial it was with judges from the three powers – the first war crimes’ trial in history. It tried 23 of the German hierarchy and it took only 13 months to complete the trial.

The trial in Cambodia, organised jointly by the UN and the Cambodian government, has had only five people in the dock but has taken 7 years and is not likely to finish before the end of the summer or even early next year. (One was convicted in 2010 and one, the only woman, has been released on health grounds.) I asked senior Western diplomats and two of the judges on the court why so long and they all found it difficult to answer. Some talked about the investigation part of the trial taking too long, yet the evidence was growing on trees.

Every major news outlet had reported on it at length. The film “The Killing Fields”, with its vivid re-creation of the mass murder, upset hundreds of thousands of cinema-goers all over the world. The genocide carried out by the now deceased Pol Pot and his henchman of the Khmer Rouge was almost on the scale of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Others point to the atmosphere of tolerance in the court, allowing the defense to hold up the proceedings with extraneous diversions. Indeed, the French lawyers who make up the defense team seem to have no sense of right and wrong.

Whilst I was in the courtroom one of them was still arguing, interrupting the main proceedings, that the health of the prisoners was not good and they shouldn’t be detained in the prison made for them- with its health facilities and TV- but should be under house arrest. The presiding judge – a Cambodian – slapped him down but he still tried again another couple of times, simply ignoring the president. It is one thing for the defense to argue points of law and to try to shorten the sentence but when they know that this was the second worst genocide of the twentieth century some reticence would not be amiss. Working to drag out the trial is outrageous.

It is tragedy that it took 27 years from the day Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by neighbouring Vietnam to get the court rolling. Unbelievably, Western nations, following in the footsteps of the US, voted to keep the Khmer Rouge flag flying outside the UN where the flags of every member nation flutter in the river breeze, and to allow them to sit inside the UN Assembly as Cambodia’s legitimate representative.

Again I asked two senior Western diplomats to explain how this could happen. One said they had been too young to remember but added that on asking an older ex-ambassador was told that at that time the horrors were not well documented. Another one simply floundered, looking for an answer that he knew couldn’t stand up in hindsight, even though in fact it couldn’t stand up at the time. When I said that to support a regime that committed the second worst genocide of the 20th century was totally and irredeemably immoral I could have cut the atmosphere in both embassies with a knife.

Reporters covered the events of the genocide with great danger to themselves, such as Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post who wrote a good book on Cambodia and will give evidence to the court in the coming days. Some of her colleagues lost their lives in an attempt to portray the horror. The film, “The Killing Fields”, was shown in cinemas all over the world. It was hard not to know unless one didn’t want to know- like much of the German population behaved when Jews were carted away right under their noses.

I walked around S 21, a converted school, where thousands were tortured to death. Their photos line the classrooms – some are only teenagers, some in their twenties. A whole generation was decimated and only lately has Cambodia begun to recover socially and economically. The survivors and the families of the murdered live with a silent pain.

One good thing about the court is its outreach program. Whilst I was there daily parties of teenage school children were brought in to watch the proceedings for a full day.

The Khmer Rouge trial at last swings towards completion. “The moral arm of the universe is long”, said Martin Luther King. “It bends towards justice”.

© Jonathan Power 2013

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