Khmer Rouge Leadership Finally Held Accountable for Their Crimes… Sort Of

2012-07-19 06.06.57Earlier this month, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC, a.k.a. the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) found Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity.

The two men, aged 88 and 83 respectively, are the sole surviving senior leaders of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which held power in Cambodia from 1975-1979. During their reign, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians died, the victims of forced relocation, enslavement, torture, mass killings, and starvation.

In 2003, the Cambodian government and the United Nations agreed to establish a hybrid (part domestic, part international) tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge for their crimes. After several years of wrangling over the funding, the ECCC became operational in 2006. In 2010, it returned its first verdict: the conviction of the head of the notorious S-21 prison on crimes against humanity, torture, and murder charges.

The proceedings against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are part of the ECCC’s second case. (Yes, that’s right, this court is operating at the blistering speed of one case every four years.) With Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot dead since 1998, this case represented the tribunal’s best chance at holding accountable those most responsible for Cambodians’ suffering.

Originally, Case 002 encompassed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide charges as well as domestic criminal charges of murder, torture, and persecution against (“Brother Number Two”), Khieu Samphan (Cambodia’s head of state during the Khmer Rouge period), Ieng Sary (the Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister), and Ieng Thirith (the Minister of Social Affairs). But Ieng Sary died last year, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, was found mentally unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer’s. And in 2011, the Trial Chamber made what was to many (including me) a puzzling decision, splitting Case 002 up into smaller “sub-trials”, allegedly to speed up the process. 

The verdict handed down on August 6 wraps up the first of these sub-trials, Case 002-01. (Incidentally, closing statements were delivered more than 9 months ago, so if this is the process sped up, yowch.) Pursuant to the severance order, it dealt with the forced movement of population and the mass execution of former regime officials early in the Khmer Rouge period. It therefore did not reach what many consider to be the emblematic crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime – the prison camp system and institutionalization of torture, the massive forced labor campaign, and the genocidal attacks on the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities.

So although the verdict is a welcome one, it’s not the comprehensive condemnation of Khmer Rouge crimes that victims and advocates had hoped for. And given the advanced age of the remaining defendants, and the glacial pace of the proceedings, this is likely the end of the line for efforts to seek justice for these atrocities.

*In case you missed it, I attended and blogged Case 002-01 in July 2012.

Ugh, Cambodia.

A leaked copy of Cambodia’s Draft Cybercrime Law suggests that the Hun Sen regime intends to crack down on online speech.

The drafts reveals that speech offenses like defamation committed online would be penalized more severely than their offline equivalents. Worse, it includes a provision (Article 28) that prohibits content that might “hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia”, “incite or instigate the general population”, or “generate insecurity”.

As Al Jazeera reports, Cambodian bloggers are understandably nervous about a future in which they could face up to three years of prison time for saying the wrong thing online.

Cambodian Dissident Mam Sonando Sentenced to 20 Years for No Good Reason

Back in July I reported on the arrest of Beehive Radio owner and political activist, Mam Sonando. In an absurd abuse of legal process, Sonando was charged with participating in an insurrection and inciting armed rebellion following his public support of villagers protesting their eviction from land the Cambodian government has awarded to a Russian company, Casotim. In May, the government’s attempt to forcibly remove the villagers led to the fatal shooting of an unarmed 14 year old girl. Rather than investigating the girl’s death or issuing an apology, the government chose to double down on its repressive tactics, characterizing the protests as a secession attempt and accusing critics of the crackdown of instigating a rebellion.

Yesterday, Judge Chaing Sinat of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed down a 20 year sentence in Sonando’s case, prompting outcry from local NGOsinternational organizations, and donor governments, and demonstrating once again the dismaying complicity of Cambodia’s judiciary in the abuses of the Hun Sen regime.

WTF Friday, Except Actually Monday, 9/24/2012

Apparently it’s Opposite Day over at Counterpunch. From an article called “Pol Pot Revisited,” by Israel Shamir:

“The Khmer Rouge experiment lasted only three years, from 1975 to 1978. Surprisingly, Cambodians have no bad memories of that period.

And later:

“As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocutors.”

1.7 million dead Cambodians beg to differ, dude.

H/T: Marginal Revolution

Live (Not Really) from the ECCC

As I’ve mentioned previously, I spent a bunch of last month hanging out at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, observing Case 002, the trial of Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan for Khmer Rouge atrocities.

It’s an interesting experience sitting in the audience, watching a mass atrocity trial while surrounded by the victims of that atrocity. I ended up being about as absorbed by the interaction between the security personnel and the Khmer Rouge victims in the public gallery than by the actual proceedings in the courtroom.  (Also, in the three years since I stopped actively practicing law, I’d sort of forgotten just how dull court can be, no matter how interesting the subject matter of the trial.)

Setting aside (as much as I can), the substantive legal issues under discussion, here’s a brief sample of the experience watching the proceedings:

July 20, 2012
9:02am: The Trial Chamber explains that the Prosecution will wrap up its examination of expert witness David Chandler (author of a number of books on Cambodian history) this morning before turning things over to counsel for the Civil Parties.

9:07am: Security guard tells me I can’t sit with my legs crossed. Ookay. Feet on the floor, eyes straight ahead.

9:22am: I decide “Revolutionary Flag” would be a really awesome band name.

9:44am: Security guard makes victims stop leaning on the backs of the seats in front of them, sit up straight.

9:47am: I decide “The Three Ghosts” would be an even more awesome band name.

10:28am: The expert witness complements S-21 prison head Duch’s “wonderful” handwriting.

10:35: The Trial Chamber breaks for coffee.

10:53: Proceedings resume.

10:57am: I take the desk out of the seat arm in order to put my notebook on it, 3 security guards panic, hover suspiciously over me as I write.

11:02am: National defense counsel for Ieng Sary objects to the witness’s reference to an S-21 confession, argues that this is torture-tainted evidence that cannot be used under international law. I am confused, as the intention of the prohibition is surely not to protect torturers from having evidence of their torture presented. (More on this later.) It turns out it doesn’t matter, because the reference is actually to a letter written prior to interrogation anyway. Yeesh.

11:15am: Counsel for the Civil Parties begin their questions.

11:27: Security guard yells at two victims for sleeping, makes them sit up. I’m an actual international lawyer writing a dissertation on international criminal tribunals and I can barely stay focused. I can’t imagine how bored these Cambodians from the provinces are…

12:03: International counsel for Nuon Chea states that his client is suffering from a headache, back pain, and a lack of concentration, and will not be returning to the courtroom for the afternoon’s proceedings. (This happens every day, and every day I think “Me too, dude. Me too.”)

12:15pm: Trial Chamber breaks for lunch.

1:32pm: Proceedings resume.

2:13pm: Counsel for the Civil Parties asks the witness whether there are any historical events comparable in scale to the April 1975 forced evacuation of Phnom Penh. The witness responds that there’s nothing similarly severe in recorded history, but he “can’t speak for the Mongols.” That seems like good sense. We should never try to speak for the Mongols.

2:20pm: Security guard tells victim to sit with his legs closer together. Man, these guys have highly specific leg position requirements.

2:28pm: A very confusing digression about the Milgram experiments occurs. Everyone is perplexed, especially the national defense counsel for Ieng Sary who, unsurprisingly, can’t place the name “Milgram.”

2:37pm: Security guard scolds victim for putting his arm up on the back of the chair next to him. Apparently arm position is also important.

2:44pm: Trial Chamber breaks for coffee. I am suffering from a headache, back pain, and lack of concentration, and decide to go home.

Note: If you’re interested in the latest developments in Case 002, the transcripts are up on the ECCC’s website.

All Hail the Iron God

I’ve spent several days over the last couple of weeks observing the proceedings at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal). It’s been an interesting experience, which I will get around to blogging next week, but so far, nothing has happened to rival Pol Pot’s nephew Saloth Ban’s testimony in April that “the Iron God told [him] that this Court is unjust.”

Said Iron God, speaking to him in a dream, also suggested that while testifying, he should not answer any questions that made him unhappy. Unsurprisingly, the President of the Trial Chamber, Cambodian judge Nil Nonn, was not impressed with the god’s advice, and instructed the witness to get on with his testimony.

Apparently, Saloth Ban was referring to Lok Ta Dambong Dek, a.k.a. “the Lord of the Iron Staff,” whose statue (pictured at right) stands in a spirit house outside of the courtroom. Before testifying, Buddhist witnesses swear their oath to answer truthfully in front of it.

You could see how the oath might give a person nightmares. It’s terrifying. In the U.S., witnesses swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” By contrast, Cambodian witnesses appearing before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal must swear the following:

I will answer only the truth, in accordance with what I have personally seen, heard, know, and remember. If I answer falsely on any issue, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians and powerful sacred spirits destroy me, may my material possessions be destroyed, and may I die a miserable and violent death. But, if I answer truthfully, may the sacred spirits assist me in having abundant material possession and living in peace and happiness along with my family and relatives forever, in all my reincarnations.

I’m told this is actually a watered down version of the oath witnesses take in the domestic courts here. Yikes.

Recommended Reading on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Stéphanie Giry has an interesting post about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal up at the NY Review of Books blog. I’m in Phnom Penh at the moment, spending my time watching the Tribunal’s proceedings and harassing the people who work there, so I’ll have plenty to add on the subject soon, but if you’re looking for a good sum-up of the situation, go read Giry’s piece.

In outlining the political challenges (both domestic and international) to the effective delivery of justice for Khmer Rouge crimes, Giry raises a number of troubling issues that apply to international justice efforts more widely. The existence of “few degrees of separation between the crimes of yesterday and the leaders of today” describes any number of post-atrocity societies, constraining prosecutorial choices and incentivizing political interference. Similarly, in the presence of incentives to interfere, corruption issues around an accountability process are always a possibility.

However, it is Giry’s description of the role of the UN and donor governments that I find most disturbing in its potential broad applicability. She characterizes the international actors participating in the Tribunal’s work as “eager to present themselves as guardians of international justice for as small a political price as possible.” Unfortunately, this sentiment echoes a number of conversations I’ve had with people here over the last two and a half weeks.

The hybrid tribunal model (in which a domestic government and international actors work together to create and staff a court) is intended to supplement the capacity of local judicial institutions to a degree sufficient to produce justice that meets international standards. But if the international partners can’t be bothered to object when these standards are violated, what’s the point?


In Which I Begin to Suspect That “Secession” Means Something Different in Cambodia

The big news in Phnom Penh over the weekend was the arrest of Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, one of a small number of independent radio stations in Cambodia, and head of an NGO called Democrat Association.

Prime Minister Hun Sen called for Sonando’s arrest last month following a Beehive report on Khmer diaspora efforts to convince the International Criminal Court to investigate the regime’s human rights abuses. Sonando has been a vocal supporter of the rights of Cambodian villagers against land grabs by private companies. The charges (which I’ll get to) link him to a forced eviction dispute between the Cambodian government and locals in Kratie Province in which security forces fired on protesting villagers with live ammunition. A 14 year old girl was shot and killed; there has so far been no investigation into her death.

Here’s where things take a turn from the tragic and upsetting into the absurd (and still upsetting). The government justified its use of force by claiming that it wasn’t brutally suppressing unarmed demonstrators, it was breaking up a secession attempt. Because it’s totally reasonable to assume that a bunch of poor villagers objecting to the seizure of their land are secretly planning to overthrow the government. And Kratie, which sits smack dab in the middle of Cambodia, would be a totally reasonable place to set up an independent state.

Sonando’s support for the protesters (ahem, secessionists), along with the fact that several of them are members of his Democrat Association, apparently provided adequate grounds for Hun Sen to demand his arrest and for a Kratie judge to issue a warrant on charges of insurrection and incitement. Sonando returned to Cambodia from Europe on July 12 despite the charges and the Ministry of Interior waited just long enough for Hillary Clinton and the rest of the visiting ASEAN diplomats to get out of town before arresting him on the 15th.

So that all sounds like it’ll end well, right?

Fun with the Wikileaks Cables, Cambodia Edition

The 11 hour New York -> Phnom Penh time difference produces pretty crippling jet lag, so I decided that a fun way to pass the time while waiting for my brain to reboot would be to go through the Cambodia Wikileaks cables. (Sounds like a blast, right?)

The highlight so far: “Cambodia’s Burgeoning Youth Population Increasingly Seduced By The ‘perfect High.’

Yes, that’s right, it’s the Reefer Madness of State Department cables: a 2010 communique decrying the allegedly skyrocketing use of meth among Cambodia’s youth. Drug addiction may indeed be a growing problem here (and there are serious issues with the government’s approach to addicts), but it’s hard to tell from this cable, which bases its conclusions on:

  • The inclusion of frightening crime statistics that have no apparent causal relationship to the phenomenon under discussion.

“Although there is currently no empirical evidence linking it to drug use in Cambodia, local NGO Licadho reports the number of rape cases has been steadily increasing over the past few years, with approximately 60% of last year’s cases involving victims who were minors.”

“Middle class teens regularly buy easily available drugs and are known to rent rooms in guest houses with friends to hold ‘drug parties.'”

  • Reliance on the “if one guy said it, it must be true” school of evidence-gathering.

“A Muslim student from Kampong Cham University told Poloff that approximately ‘65% of students take meth regularly. It is cheap, cool, easy to access, and then they can’t stop.'”

  • And the kicker: blaming society’s problems on women entering the workforce.

“Besides availability, experts believe that the rise in drug use among the middle class youth can be attributed to a change in the culture where both parents now work and have less control over the daily activities of their children.”

Seems like all kinds of governments are down on Khmer ladies leaving the house lately…

Field Trip!

I’m headed to Cambodia for a month tonight, so you can look forward to first-person updates on whether or not Nuon Chea’s defense attorney is wearing his “I ♥ Dada” button.

Meanwhile, this just in from a tipster already on the scene: “Will NGOs, Foreigners and Extremist ‘human rights’ Advocates, and Loud-Mouth ‘Champions for Democracy’ Leave all the Women in the Cold?

First ask yourself what set of titling conventions puts “loud-mouth” in capitals, but leaves “human rights” lower case, and then proceed to marveling at the actual content of the statement. For me, the highlight is the “think of the children” angle (because who doesn’t love an effort to police women’s participation in the public sphere that equates political engagement with bad parenting), but you might like the extended mixed metaphors (silver bullets, mules… I can’t keep up) or the insistence on putting scare quotes around all rights-related language. Enjoy.