PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Thirty years after the fall of the ultra-Maoist regime known as the Khmer Rouge that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s, trials are set to begin to hold a handful of its leaders accountable. Under their fanatical regime, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from overwork, starvation and murder.
After years of delays, testimonies begin Monday in the trial of Kaing Khek Iev, the chief of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious torture center, codenamed S-21.
Iev, better know by his nom de guerre, Duch, is one of five detained senior Khmer Rouge leaders believed to be the architects of the regime's reign of terror who are still living. They face a UN-backed war crimes tribunal and could receive a maximum of life imprisonment.
Court officials went to great lengths to frame last month’s procedural hearings for Duch as an historic moment of progress for the court and for the impoverished country’s healing.
But even as some degree of official accountability is materializing, a storm of criticism and controversy surrounds the war crimes court — a hybrid structure with both international and national judges, lawyers and administrators presiding.
The Cambodian side is struggling to keep financially afloat following a funding halt after allegations arose last July that national staff, in order to secure their jobs, were forced to pay sizable portions of their salaries to their bosses.
Donor countries have provided the bulk of funds to run the tribunal, and the bitter pill of backing a court associated with corruption has become more difficult to swallow as the court’s budget, originally set at $53 million for three years, has ballooned to $170 million for five years just one-and-a-half years into the process.
Cambodian court officials have denied the allegations. A review last September by a UN oversight body has yet to be made public.
However, a report from a German parliamentary delegation, written last November after its members met with the tribunal's deputy director of administration, Knut Rosandhaug, presents a bleak picture: Referring to “grave corruption” problems, Rosandhaug said that if “the national government continues to object to following up on the corruption allegations … the United Nations should withdraw from the tribunal” or else it will risk tainting its image.
But UN officials have yet to voice such stern words.
“The only real pressure can come from the donor countries and the UN — with one voice — but they have never done that,” said Brad Adams, head of the London-based Human Rights Watch in Asia, and an early member of the negotiations with the government to establish a war crimes court.
By failing to throw down the gauntlet, the UN has undermined the court’s entire mandate, he said.
“We thought we should have an international standard court,” Adams said. Instead, he continued, in this case "the government considers the UN an intruder.”
Indeed, Canadian co-prosecutor Robert Petit is being made to feel he overstepped his mandate.
Petit’s move to add more suspects to the docket — a handful of figures he describes as having been key to implementing the policies set by the regime’s top leaders — was blocked by his Cambodian colleague, Chea Leang, a niece of the current deputy prime minister.
She argued that additional prosecutions could prove destabilizing, overstretch the tribunal’s limited resources, and would run against the spirit of the 2003 U.N. treaty establishing the court, which called only for “senior leaders” of the regime and “those who were most responsible” to be tried.
Many senior government posts are currently held by former Khmer Rouge cadre, and experts say the government fears a wider roundup could expose them to scrutiny. For his part, Prime Minister Hun Sen made his position clear in 1998 when he recommended Cambodians “should dig a hole and bury the past.”
But Petit says casting a wider net would play a key role in validating the court’s work. “It would allow the court to achieve as much justice as possible even within its limited confines.”
For Adams, the move is more essential: “Unless there are more cases, it will not have done the minimum necessary for all of this to have even been worthwhile.”
The country is divided over whether additional high level cadre should be tried — with 57 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed, according to a recent poll. It is safe to say, however, that the decision will come down to politics between Cambodian and international officials, and have little to do with local public input.
As the court makes slow progress, old wounds fester.
“Thirty years later, the memories are still excruciating,” said Van Nath, who witnessed prisoners being waterboarded, doused with battery acid or simply bludgeoned to force them to admit to trumped-up crimes against the regime.
Nath, 63, is one of S-21’s few surviving victims. While he was electrocuted and faced constant threat of execution, he survived only by dint of his artistic skills, which he was forced to use to paint propaganda portraits of Pol Pot.
Unlike the other figures in detention, Nath’s former keeper, Duch, now a born-again Christian, has acknowledged his crimes and asked for forgiveness. He is, however, expected to argue in court that he was following orders from his superiors and would have been killed had he not obeyed.
Even if the rail-thin, seemingly benign former schoolteacher cuts a sympathetic figure on the stand, to Nath he remains “a man who gave orders with authority” while presiding over a prison where more than 12,000 men, women and children were brutally tortured before being executed in the “killing fields” outside the city.
Making more Cambodians with blood on their hands face trial would help the country’s healing, he said.
But, he added, “with the limited movement we have so far, that doesn’t seem possible … and I’m still waiting every day for judgment on these five.”
Brendan Brady is a reporter and editor at The Phnom Penh Post.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the name of Kaing Khek Iev.