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APRIL10, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 14


Andy Eames/AP
Leading Cambodia genocide researcher Youk Chhang

Will Justice Ever be Served?
As talks with the U.N. collapse, Cambodia moves to set up a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders. Many fear it will prove to be a sham
By KAY JOHNSON Phnom Penh

The fierce-eyed Khmer Rouge guerrillas went from house to house, pounding on windows and waving rifles. They had one message for Phnom Penh's 2 million terrified residents: get out. "They said we had only three days to live, so there was no need to take any clothes," recalls Chhen Ran, 55. There was also no way to take her husband: an ethnic Chinese importer, he had no place in the communist agrarian paradise the Khmer Rouge aimed to build. As Chhen screamed, they dragged him away; she never saw him again. She herself was spared death, but joined the millions of people emptied out of Cambodia's cities and enslaved in rural labor farms. Nearly 25 years after Year Zero, the first of four years of Khmer Rouge rule, Chhen's deep-lined face twists in pain as the memories come flooding back--a pain increased by the fact that no one has ever paid for what happened. "We have been living all these years, waiting," she says. "And we still have no justice.

By rights, Chhen should have been more optimistic last week, as Cambodia moved to set up a special tribunal for leaders of the 1975-'79 regime. But many Cambodians fear that few of the architects of the "killing fields" that claimed 1.7 million lives will be brought before the organ--especially if the United Nations is excluded from the process, which now seems increasingly likely. Prime Minister Hun Sen has made it clear that at least one of the regime's top leaders, Ieng Sary, will be exempt from trial. After talks with the U.N. broke down last month, the government last week advised parliament to move ahead with its own plan for the tribunal. Critics fear the result will be show trials in which only a token few Khmer Rouge leaders will face court, cementing what U.N. human rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg has called "a culture of impunity" in Cambodia. "Deep down, our rulers do not want to have a real trial for the Khmer Rouge," says Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.

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How could anyone allow suspects in some of the 20th century's worst atrocities to escape accountability? The answer lies in the intricacies of Cambodia's internal politics and in a dusty mining town near the northwestern border with Thailand. Effectively a retirement home for mass murderers, Pailin houses at least four former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. They live free in the area with the blessing of Hun Sen's government as a reward for ending their guerrilla war. In 1996 Ieng Sary, the regime's former Deputy Premier, was the first major cadre to defect to the government--strengthening Hun Sen's hand in his power struggle with then co-Premier Norodom Ranariddh--and was granted an official amnesty in return. He was followed by top cadres Ke Pauk, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. All were welcomed by Hun Sen as heroes of national reconciliation. Ke Pauk was even made a one-star general in the Cambodian army. The Prime Minister told his people at the end of 1998 that they should "dig a hole and bury the past." Preserving the new-found peace, he argued, was more important than confronting the old crimes.

That advice didn't sit well with many survivors. The defectors were all members of the Khmer Rouge's standing committee, which shaped the regime's policies of torture and forced labor, according to genocide researcher Youk Chhang, who has spent nearly a decade gathering 400,000 documents on the Khmer Rouge. Aside from the defectors, there aren't many other Khmer Rouge leaders left. Pol Pot, once known as Brother Number One, died in a jungle hideout in 1998. Another senior cadre, Son Sen, was killed in an internal purge the year before.

The defection deals didn't please the U.N., either. Hun Sen had asked the world body in 1997 to help find justice for the Khmer Rouge's atrocities. But with the last round of defections in late 1998, the Prime Minister changed his stance, and has since engaged the U.N. in a cat-and-mouse game over control of the trials. First, he rejected Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recommendation of an international tribunal similar to the ones for Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Next, his soldiers captured Ta Mok, the last Khmer Rouge commander who had not defected, and announced that national courts would try him. Hun Sen then softened his position, saying he would favor a joint tribunal of Cambodian and U.N. judges. Hoping for a deal, the U.N. last month sent a delegation to work out details for the body. Establishing the court, U.N. chief negotiator Hans Corell said, would be a historic breakthrough. But the U.N. left empty-handed, as Cambodia rejected its proposals. The U.N. had wanted greater international control to ensure that evidence, not politics, determines who is indicted. A week later, Phnom Penh announced it would move forward with its own plans.

There's probably little the U.N. can do to make Hun Sen to change his mind. Unlike in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the Security Council cannot force an independent tribunal on Phnom Penh because China would likely exercise its veto, arguing that the matter is Cambodia's internal affair. But Cambodia's court system is so weak and politically subservient that the trials would almost certainly be dismissed as a kangaroo court. Only one in five judges in the country has a law degree. Some never finished grade school. And the burgeoning problem of vigilante justice, with near-weekly reports of mobs beating suspected thieves to death, suggests that Cambodians themselves have little faith in the courts. "People don't see justice being done in Cambodia today," says Youk Chhang, "so how can they think the courts can handle the Khmer Rouge trials?"

Hun Sen's answer: only courts that understand national reconciliation can handle such delicate cases. He says he doesn't trust the U.N. not to reignite civil war. To many, that sounds like an excuse, since the Khmer Rouge defectors have little fighting clout left. But with the country only recently removed from three decades of civil war, some Cambodians don't want to take chances. At a recent public debate in the former northwestern front of Battambang, farmer Hom Sophon broke down in tears as she listed the family members she lost to the regime. Still, she said she fears future strife more: "Only poor people in the countryside will suffer if there is war again."

Besides, says Hun Sen, the U.N. has some nerve pontificating about the Khmer Rouge. In the 1980s the world body allowed the guerrillas' government-in-exile to hold Cambodia's General Assembly seat rather than give it to the Vietnam-backed government Hun Sen headed. And in 1991, the international community urged Hun Sen to let the Khmer Rouge leaders return to politics as signatories of the Paris agreement that was to end the civil war. Only the Khmer Rouge's withdrawal from the peace process prevented this from happening.

Still, while the U.N. talks are at an impasse, some analysts say there is still hope for a last-minute deal. "Cambodia wants U.N. endorsement because it recognizes that its own judicial and prosecutorial systems lack credibility," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. But how much control is Hun Sen willing to yield? "He is a past master at giving up a few elements of form while denying all substance, and that is the game that he is still playing with the U.N.," says Cambodia scholar Stephen Heder. Some Cambodians speculate that the government is trying to prolong the talks until most of the major defectors, now in their 70s, are dead.

The Khmer Rouge's victims, meanwhile, are still waiting. Chhen Ran has little confidence in Hun Sen's courts. "The U.N. is better," she says. "Cambodian courts cannot find justice for the people." After 25 years, she and others fear that when the trials do begin, they might not be worth the wait.


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