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Civil parties are leaving mixed legacy at Khmer Rouge tribunal

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Civil Party MOM Vun testifies last year before the Trial Chamber of ECCC in Case 00202 against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Sok Heng Nhet/ECCC

Civil parties are leaving mixed legacy at Khmer Rouge tribunal

The closing brief of the civil parties in the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, made public this week, summarises the “unique” role of the civil parties in the Khmer Rouge tribunal, a role that has been lauded as ground-breaking but not without controversy.

The closing brief offers a perspective on the purpose of civil parties in the trial, writing that “Civil Parties are on equal footing with the Co-Prosecutors and the Accused” and noting that civil parties in this trial have the unique ability to ask questions directly to the accused.

The court has been praised by outside observers for allowing victims to directly participate in an international trial for the first time. At the same time, however, some have argued that their participation has been curtailed, while the defence has criticised the amount of weight given to their testimony by the trial judges.

Out of millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, the court accepted 3,869 civil parties that were represented as a “consolidated group” of those most affected by the regime. Sixty-four civil parties ultimately ended up testifying in court, with 52 of those posing questions to the accused. In every instance the defendants “exercised their right to silence and declined to answer”.

“I tried to follow the Party lines. I sacrificed my life, and did not mind as to when I would die. And when the Democratic Kampuchea was established, why my parents, my blood siblings, and my relatives, myself and my comrades in arms were tortured, imprisoned and forced to work day and night with insufficient food that they subsequently disappeared?” civil party Ou Dav asked the regime leaders.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are on trial for a slew of crimes, having already been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and political persecution in Case 002/01.

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Civil Parties members at the Forum on the Developments of ECCC Proceedings and Reparation in Case 00202 held in Kampong Cham this February. ECCC

Case 002/02 features perhaps the most significant charges of genocide and forced marriage. The civil party closing brief features disturbing testimony on both subjects.

Lead civil party co-lawyer Marie Guiraud said the purpose of the brief is to highlight “personal experiences” of victims to “assist the Trial Chamber in characterising elements of the crimes for which the Accused are being tried”.

In the brief, Him Man, a member of the Muslim Cham minority, was quoted as testifying that Cham people were specifically forced to eat pork because it went against their customs.

“We were forced at gun point [to eat pork] . . . Some people were weeping while they were eating pork . . . I myself had to force myself to eat pork, otherwise I would be shot dead,” Man said.

Man added that the Cham people were also forced to cut their hair and weren’t allowed to pray.

The brief also features testimony from multiple women who were forced to marry strangers and were raped either by their husbands or by Khmer Rouge officials when they resisted.

“Two days before the marriage, at nighttime at around 7pm, a group of comrades called me to go to rice storage. There were five of them and it was about 7pm and I could not see their faces . . . And after they raped me, my marriage was arranged,” said Mom Vun.

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Chum Mey, one of the survivors from the secret Khmer Rouge prison S-21 gives his testimony before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2009. ECCC

Pen Sochan, at 15 or 16, was forced to marry a 25-year-old man who raped her after she refused to consummate the marriage the first two nights.

“He raped me while under the watch of the militiamen . . . They laughed and they shouted at us that we had to make children for Angkar,” said Sochan.

Both Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are seeking a full acquittal of all charges, with their defence teams arguing that there isn’t enough evidence to link the leaders directly to the crimes.

Chea’s lawyer, Victor Koppe, has previously objected to the handling of civil party testimony, arguing that civil parties aren’t held to the same strict standards as witnesses, yet their testimony still has the potential to influence the judges’ decisions.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said he admires the courage of civil parties, but added that “no trial has the ability to compensate what we lost”.

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