Roughly 40 years ago, the Khmer Rouge banished religion and instituted a brutal regime that culminated in the deaths of almost a quarter of the population. Yesterday, 40 survivors of that regime gathered in a small church in Kampong Chhnang – 10 kilometres from a particularly brutal slave labour site – to watch the final verdict in Case 002/01 be handed down to regime leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.
A hush descended over the group as Supreme Court judge Kong Srim began to read the appeal verdict for the two accused. Srim criticised the trial chamber’s decision not to call Heng Samrin as a witness, rejected accusations of unconstitutionality and, in Rolea Ba’ier district, gradually lost his audience.
As the judge read on, the people gathered became disinterested and restless, less keen on the intricate legalese than in hearing a guilty verdict and seeing their former oppressors sentenced – with no chance at further appeal – to a lifetime in prison.
Their palpable impatience with the proceedings was a reflection of the nation’s impatience with a process that has taken years – not including the three decades it took to even initiate. The trial of the pair began in 2011, but they weren’t sentenced until 2014. The appeal process alone took a further two years, and despite today’s sentence, they will continue to stand trial for a slew of other crimes against humanity.
That impatience was made explicit by several Khmer Rouge survivors after the screening, who said the trial had taken too long and, in doing so, compromised justice. They referenced the fact that some of the accused – like former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith – died before they could be convicted, and many victims died before they could see the men held responsible.
One survivor, Or Chan, said he was “happy about the verdict”, but nonetheless added: “The trial took too long, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Another, Ros Sarom, said she was “angry that it took so long to convict”, the two men.
Sat Tangkim, meanwhile, had laboured under the regime in the neighbouring district. She was satisfied to see the two leaders declared guilty, but also angry over what she perceived as many miscarriages of justice. She, too, railed against the length of the trial, saying “many plaintiffs and defendants died before they could see justice”.
Tangkim also called for a premature end to the ongoing Case 002/02, claiming there was sufficient evidence for the judges to simply declare the defendants guilty.
When, after an hour and a half, the verdict was finally given, there was no celebration, but neither were there tears. The survivors accepted the decision with stone-faced stoicism, much as they had the horrors that were inflicted upon them all those years ago.
One survivor, Lerng Dy, described how she was subjected to intense manual labour in the rice fields in that very same district under Khmer Rouge rule.
“I worked non-stop. I would start from 4 in the morning and would take a rest at 11am. I would start again from 1pm to 10pm. Then I had to wake up early to work again,” she said
Dy said that despite the exhausting nature of the labour, she was given only a bit of porridge to eat, but refrained from stealing extra food because she was afraid of being killed.
She said people often disappeared during the regime. Her husband was sent to build a hospital, but never came back. To this day, she does not know what happened to him.
While justice may have been served in a legal sense, Dy said it had not brought any closure to the disappearance of her husband or the deaths of her three children by malnutrition.
Tangkim, meanwhile, took issue with the comparatively comfortable conditions in which the two men will finish out their life sentences.
“They have people who care for them, live with air conditioning, and they are [treated] like millionaires . . . We should not be easy on them. I want them to be placed in a dark cell with no light, no visitors and no care,” she said.
While the international community may grapple over the legal legacy of the court in the broad context of international criminal law, for many of the victims – affected in deeply personal ways – the sentence seemed too little, too late.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and the organiser of the event, said he understood the frustration, but maintained that the verdict is not just about the past, but also about looking to the future.
“This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning,” he said, expressing hope the process would begin to restore faith in the justice system. “It’s about ensuring this atrocity won’t take place again.”