Seventeen first-year Phnom Penh law students witnessed history recently as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) became the first international tribunal to rule that the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge amounted to genocide.
The tribunal sentenced Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, former leaders of the ultra-Maoist regime, to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979.
The English Law Programme students at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) had attended the ECCC for private group visits.
“It was a very unique opportunity for these students to visit the court,” said Nathan Chan, one of the students’ lecturers who arranged the visits.
“First, as future lawyers, they can take advantage of having in their own backyard, one of the few criminal courts in the world that have ever existed to prosecute those responsible for mass atrocities."
“But more importantly, for these students personally, they have the opportunity to learn about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which happened more than two decades before they were born,” he said.
The students – who study in the university’s English Language Based Bachelor of Law (ELBBL) programme were welcomed by the ECCC’s Public Affairs Section, which coordinates these free visits to educate the public about the court’s work.
Each visit lasted about 90 minutes and consisted of a briefing on the purpose and history of the court and the cases, followed by discussions led by representatives from the co-prosecutor and defence teams.
“Many in the older generations avoid talking about their traumatic experiences, so this is a great way for these students to learn how their own parents, grandparents, and other elderly relatives, likely suffered during that time."
“The students have learned the fundamentals of legal systems and the law recently in my class,” added Chan, who is teaching the first-term ‘intro to law’ course called Legal Method and Reasoning.
“So the visit provided a real-life example of concepts such as the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard that applies to the criminal defendants, as well as the respective roles of the prosecutors, defence lawyers, and judges within the civil law legal system of Cambodia,” he said.
Thirty-eight ELBBL students (ranging from the first to third year) also attended the public hearing on November 16, when the Trial Chamber provided a summary of its judgment in Case 002/02 against Chea and Samphan.
The students witnessed history as the Court became the first international tribunal to decide that what happened from 1975 to 1979 was in fact genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese minorities in Cambodia.
“It was great [for us] to be able to see a case that is an important part of our country’s history,” said one of the students, Kimhuor.
Another student, Thavanny, said: “We learned a lot more details about what happened during the Khmer Rouge. Before this, we only knew generally what had happened.”
Based on the positive feedback of the students, Chan hopes to make private visits like November’s more regularly in the future – at least every year with each new ELBBL entrance class, if not more often.
“It is too invaluable an opportunity to pass up. I plan to continue setting up these visits as long as the court continues to do its work,” he said.
To arrange a private visit to the ECCC, please contact the Public Affairs Section by email at [email protected] or by phone at 023 861 565. You can also visit https://www.eccc.gov.kh/en/about-eccc/visitor-info/group-visits for more information.