Khmer Rouge big four finally face justice

THEAUSTRALIANlogoTHE long-anticipated trial of the four most senior living Khmer Rouge leaders begins today, more than 30 years after Cambodia was racked by their ultra-communist rule of mass torture and murder.

Brother No 2, Nuon Chea; head of state Khieu Samphan; foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife; and social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, have all been charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Along with Brother No 1, Pol Pot, these four made Khmer Rouge policy, handed down orders and ruled over the deaths of as many as 1.7 million people who were executed or died from torture, starvation, exhaustion, illness or injuries.

A lawyer from Adelaide, Bill Smith, is the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s international deputy co-prosecutor. He has spent years wading through the evidence of anguish and despair to help put together the case against the four leaders, who were integral to the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

“We’re confident there’s sufficient evidence to bring the accused to trial,” he said. “There’s a significant body of evidence.”

The catalogue of terror runs to hundreds of thousands of pages in the case file, which trial chamber judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh can refer to if they think it necessary.

Mr Smith says the prosecutors have selected more than 6500 items to present to the tribunal, ranging from videos, photos, witness statements, internal memorandums, telegrams, documents from the Khmer Rouge torture centres, torture confessions and official cables.

Although none of the four, all now elderly, has admitted any guilt, Nuon Chea obliquely referred to his wrongdoing in the documentary Enemies of the People, which included footage of Khmer Rouge officials discussing the mass murders and how they sometimes ate the victims’ gall bladders. One explained how he had slit so many throats it made his wrist ache, so he began to stab the unfortunates in the neck instead.

Nuon Chea said in the film it was “the correct solution” to have traitors “killed and destroyed”.

But Mr Smith says that whatever Nuon Chea has said elsewhere, he has the right to remain silent before the tribunal. “I haven’t seen that film yet, but we will make sure any relevant probative and relevant evidence will be put before the court,” he said.

The international community agrees there must be justice for the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but it has been slow in coming and the tribunal is expensive. From the inception of the court in 2006 until the end of last year, the cost has been $US109.1 million, and by the end of this year it is expected to be $US149.8m.

Australia has contributed $16.7m towards cost of the tribunal, including $2m this month.

Eyebrows have been raised by allegations of corruption and political interference with the tribunal in the past, and recently by infighting among tribunal officials.

In a leaked letter of resignation to the investigating judges working on case three – intended to follow after the trial of the four leaders – historian Stephen Heder referred to the judges’ decision “to close the investigation into case file 003 effectively without investigating it”.

Case three is thought to cover the crimes of Meas Muth, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge navy, and Sou Met, the Khmer Rouge air force commander. The closing of the case by the two co-investigating judges, one from Cambodia and one from Germany, prompted angry allegations of political interference.

Mr Heder wrote to the judges of the “toxic atmosphere of mutual mistrust generated by your management” in the “professionally dysfunctional office”. At least four staff members and a consultant have resigned from the office of the investigating judges in the past seven weeks, alleging bad faith.

The prosecutors had already decided the judges’ investigation was insufficient, and requested more work on the case.

“There’s obviously a lot of concern about cases three and four, but we’re just doing our jobs,” Mr Smith said of the cases against five more Khmer Rouge officials.

“From the international prosecutors’ perspective, case three and case four are proceeding.”

Officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal has already chalked up one victory.

Torture prison commander Kaing Guek Eav, notorious as Duch, was convicted of crimes against humanity last year, and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Duch, who ruled over the outrages committed at the Tuol Sleng torture prison in Phnom Penh, publicly apologised to his victims, but even so he has appealed.

Now finally the big four will face their accusers.

“This has been a long time waiting for many, many Cambodians and for many national and international human rights activists who want the senior and most responsible people brought to account,” Mr Smith said. “It’s cathartic to see people brought to account in the form of a fair trial.”