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Never Too Late for Justice

Cambodians arrive from all parts of the country to observe the tribunals. October 2012. —Lucian Perkins for US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In a highly anticipated ruling, a guilty verdict was read today in the case against Khieu Samphan, former Cambodian head of state, and Nuon Chea, former deputy to notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime at least 1.7 million Cambodians—more than one quarter of the population—were murdered or perished between 1975 and 1979 in one of the worst cases of mass slaughter since the Holocaust.

Thirty-seven months after their indictments were first read, both defendants were found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were convicted on charges of murder, extermination, political persecution, and other inhumane acts for their participation in the  “joint criminal enterprise” that was the pursuit of the Khmer Rouge’s fatally flawed ideology of deconstructing Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. There were originally four individuals accused, but former foreign minister Ieng Sary died in March last year and his wife, Ieng Thirith, was found mentally incompetent in November 2011.

The defendants’ lawyers immediately announced they would appeal the verdict.

Cameron Hudson, director of the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said, “The trials of Nazi leaders in the aftermath of the Holocaust laid down a marker that those who commit the world’s worst crimes will be held accountable in a court of law. But the road to justice is never easy. Today we are gratified that, however long it has taken, some of those most responsible for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge have been found guilty of their crimes in front of the survivors and the world.”

Due to the advanced age of the defendants, early on the trial was separated into parts, each addressing a different section of the indictment, in the hope of achieving convictions on some of the charges before it was too late. This first case focused on forced evacuations and one site of mass murder. Last week the court held preliminary hearings in the next segment of the trial, known as case 002.02, which includes charges of genocide for crimes committed against the Cham Muslim and Vietnamese populations of Cambodia.

More than 100,000 people from all walks of life and all over the country attended the 222 sessions of the trial in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia. In addition, more than 4,000 victims and survivors were able to join the case as “civil parties,” many of whom testified in court against the accused and directly confronted them for their crimes.

The length of the trial, its expense (upwards of $200 million), and the complex nature of its hybrid structure (parallel tracks for Cambodian and internationally appointed jurists and court officials), as well as political interference by the government of Cambodia, led many to question the value of the court and to ask if this was the most effective way of seeking justice—or whether indeed justice could ever be served for crimes of this magnitude.

However, for the survivors of the unspeakable atrocities of this period, many of whom lost family members, this was a long-awaited moment. A New York Times article (external link) quoted one such survivor, Norng Chan Phal, who was jailed as a young boy in the notorious S-21 prison at Tuol Sleng, as saying, "We have been waiting for this verdict for more than 30 years."

For other survivors, the lessons learned from their suffering are a contribution to humanity. Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote in a recent CNN op-ed (external link), “While our efforts in applying due process in the punishment of genocide and mass atrocities deserve recognition and respect, we should not overlook the paramount need for preventing such crimes before they occur...We must seize the opportunity to stand up for what is right, no matter the circumstance, because we know that saving millions of lives today speaks far greater for our civilization than issuing verdicts tomorrow.”

In 2012 the Center for the Prevention of Genocide conducted a Bearing Witness Trip to Cambodia to observe the trials. The Museum is currently developing a special exhibit to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh; the exhibit will examine the crimes committed by the regime between 1975 and 1979 and the search for justice in their wake.