After more than 30 years of waiting, justice begins to take shape today for millions of victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal will open one of the largest and most complex international criminal cases in history against three of the surviving senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea.
Yesterday at the killing fields of Choeung Ek about 100 civil parties gathered to commemorate the people who were executed and discarded at mass graves on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
“I am still scared of the sound of bells echoing day and night, forcing people to work harder and harder,” Yin Sun Un, a victim of forced labour in Kratie province, said at the ceremony yesterday.
“I am excited for Case 002 to start, but I am scared about bringing up the past, and I worry I will not be able to speak when my time comes [to give testimony],” she said.
For many of those at the commemorations yesterday, bringing up the past was overwhelming.
Sitting in dappled sunlight under the looming Choeung Ek stupa, which contains more than 5,000 human skulls, the frail bodies of elderly victims shook with tears and grief as representatives of the many civil party groups shared their experiences with each other.
A former prisoner of the Siem Reap prison, Sum Rithy, recounted the horror of his detention there.
“I am glad I will be called as a witness. It is us who can tell these judges the greatness of our suffering,” he said. “I will tell the judges how my hands were always tied behind my back at night, I will tell them how I was ordered to eat human faeces, how the people in the prison died with their eyes open, how I wished to be dead so I would no longer see such horror,” Sum Rithy said.
However, evidence of the abuse and violations suffered by many under the Khmer Rouge regime may never be heard in court, civil parties fear.
“I was 15 years old when they forced me to marry,” Pen Sochan, from Pursat province, said. “On the night I was married, they tied my hands and legs, and I was raped by my husband – but the court does not seem interested in this issue.”
Victims of forced marriage and persecution, such as the genocide against the Vietnamese and Cham Muslims, may never get their day in court or the acknowledgement they need and deserve, lawyers for those victims said yesterday.
“As this tribunal was created for the victims with the objective of ending impunity, it is essential … [that] both crimes and crime sites are given sufficient attention in these proceedings and that minorities are not silenced,” civil party lawyers representing those groups said in a joint statement.
There are 780 victims of forced marriage admitted as civil parties in Case 002, a crime that is not included in the first of several separate trials in the case. Genocide charges for the treatment of Vietnamese will also not be heard in the first trial.
Clair Duffy from court monitoring group Open Society Justice Initiative said: “There is no doubt this is a hugely significant moment for Cambodia, for the court and for the 4,000 victims who will be participating in the proceedings. It is all the more significant, because these are the senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders and finally 30 years of silence and denial about what happened will end.
“In principle, by the Trial Chamber severing Case 002 into mini trials, they have minimised the possibility that people won’t see any justice with such elderly accused of such ill health. We have already seen what affect this can have with the recent decision on Ieng Thirith.”
Last Thursday, the Trial Chamber ruled that former Khmer Rouge Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith was unfit to stand trial, but could not reach a decision on how to proceed with the case against her. As a result of being unable to reach a decision, the Trial Chamber ordered Ieng Thirith be “unconditionally released”.
On Friday, the co-prosecutors appealed the decision and the Supreme Court Chamber has since decided to keep Ieng Thirith in provisional detention until they reach a decision on the appeal.