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1979-2010 - War Crimes Trials

The outside world could not see what happened during the secretive years of Khmer Rouge rule. During the Khmer Rouge era the US government under President Jimmy Carter was distressed by what appeared to be happening in Cambodia. In May 1977 a Congressional Committee staged hearings on human rights abuses in Cambodia, but that was about as far as the US government was willing or able to go.

The human costs of this experiment, inspired by Maoist China, were enormous, but for three years almost no people and very little news emerged from the country. The full horror of what survivors call "the Pol Pot time" didn't become clear to the outside world, in fact, until the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 when hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them severely undernourished, straggled across the border into Thailand, each of them with a terrifying story.

When the world saw Cambodia in the movie "The Killing Fields," it did not and could not believe what it saw. Not since the Nazi concentration camps of World War II had such atrocities been heaped upon a population. Perhaps worse than the Nazis was the undisputed fact that the Khmer Rouge inflicted the death typified by "The Killing Fields" upon their own society. Khmers were actually killing their fellow Khmers. There was not one killing field in Cambodia - there were dozens of massacre sites throughout the country. The sheer number of these killing sites rendered the entire country of Cambodia one "Killing Field unto itself.

Like Jews who survived Nazi terror, many Khmer experience significant and long-term effects from the years under Khmer Rouge terror. Note that many feel that, "For us its too late" to deal with the long-term effects of these traumas. Beginning in late 1978, Cambodian refugees began fleeing to the relative safety of Thailand. From 1981-1985, approximately 150,000 Khmer were resettled in the U.S. Once in the U.S. the Khmer have tended to follow one of several paths. Some have enjoyed financial success (usually through salaried jobs rather than entrepreneurship) and have become homeowners in mixed middle-class neighborhoods. Others have scattered to suburban apartments. Still others have stayed in the neighborhoods in which they were originally resettled and have become a generally hidden part of inner-city urban life. In many cases, there has been little assimilation. In most cases, regardless of external appearances, there is great pain related to past trauma and current difficulties.

By the time the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979, little of Cambodia's health system remained intact. Much of the infrastructure had been destroyed, and fewer than 50 doctors of the 600 practicing before 1975 remained. Cambodia's age and sex distributions reflect the impact of the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. During and after the regime, mortality levels were high, particularly for men, and fertility decreased. After the civil conflict, a baby boom occurred, reflected in the large proportion of the population that is aged 20 or less (55 percent of the total population). The very high and selective mortality of the period had a major impact on the population structure of Cambodia. Fertility and marriage rates were both very low under the Khmer Rouge, but recovered immediately after the regime's collapse. Because of the shortage of eligible men, the age and education differences between partners tended to decline. The period also had a lasting impact on the educational attainment of the population. The school system collapsed during the period and therefore individuals -- especially men -- who were of school age at the time have a lower educational attainment than those from the preceding and subsequent birth cohorts.

In 1979 there was a genocide trial in Phnom Penh known as the People's Revolutionary Tribunal. That tribunal tried Ieng Sary and Pol Pot and found both guilty of the crime of genocide, but neither of them appeared in court nor served any sentence. In 1996 the King granted a pardon to Ieng Sary for the sentence imposed when the People's Revolutionary Tribunal tried him for genocide. It will be up to the judges to decide on the scope of this pardon. Even if he cannot be re-tried for genocide, there may be other charges that could be brought against him on the evidence available. In 1997 the Khmer Rouge themselves tried Pol Pot for crimes allegedly committed within the organisation after 1979. Pol Pot died in 1998.

Cambodia first approached the UN in 1997 for assistance to bring to trial the crimes committed in the Khmer Rouge period. Since the civil war ended in 1998, the Royal Government and the UN have worked together towards implementing a new type of mixed national / international tribunal. It took some time to work out the details of this new style of court. In 1999 the Cambodian Government appointed a Task Force to prepare for the trials and negotiate with the UN. The negotiations with the UN were long and complicated but both sides agreed in 2003 on the details of international participation.

In the spirit of achieving justice, truth and national reconciliation, the Cambodian government and the UN decided that the court should limit prosecutions to the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea (the name of the state established by the Khmer Rouge) who planned or gave orders, as well as those most responsible for committing serious crimes. It is expected that only a small number of people will fall within this definition and be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia [ECCC], established in 2003 under an agreement between the UN and Cambodia, is tasked with trying senior leaders and those most responsible for serious violations of Cambodian and international law committed during the Khmer Rouge rule. It is staffed by both Cambodian and international employees and judges.

Three decades after nearly 2 million people perished under Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, a United Nations-backed tribunal issued its first verdict 26 July 2010, finding the former head of a notorious detention camp guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kaing Guek Eav, whose alias is Duch, was sentenced to 35 years in prison by the trial chamber of the ECCC. The first person to stand trial before the court, he headed the S-21 camp, also known as Tuol Sleng, where numerous Cambodians were unlawfully detained, subjected to inhumane conditions and forced labor, tortured and executed in the late 1970s.

For the Cambodian people, May 20 marks the day of remembrance, otherwise known as the "Day of Anger," for the Khmer Rouge attrocities.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2012 18:40:58 ZULU