FORMER Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are facing legal
action and possible international arrest warrants following the laying of genocide,
crimes against humanity and war crimes charges in a Belgian court.
The charges have been brought by 23 Cambodian families now resident in Belgium.
The plaintiffs were encouraged to lay the charges after Belgian-based victims of
Augosto Pinochet successfully applied for an international arrest warrant for the
former Chilean dictator.
The case against the KR leaders is based on a precedent set in the Pinochet case
which used a 1993 Belgian law that targeted breaches of the Geneva Convention.
One of the complainants, Ong Thong Hoeung, said the Pinochet case has given them
an opportunity to find justice.
"The decision of the judge ... makes precedent and opens the way for other actions,"
"My friends and I and our lawyer are taking this case very seriously. We intend
to go all the way to the end," he said. "It is neither a political declaration
nor a political problem nor a publicity [stunt], but a judical problem, a penal problem."
The Cambodian families' complaint, filed Feb 4 at the Brussels Palais de Justice,
reads in part: "The undersigned ... think the above named [KR standing committee
members Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary] are responsible for crimes against
humanity, crimes of international law and crimes of genocide, as well as inhuman
and degrading treatment that they suffered or their loved ones are still suffering
The complaint also notes that Samphan, Chea and Sary - who is cited as "responsible
for internment and reeducation camps" in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham - are living
free in Pailin. "No interest, no political, military, or national necessity
can justify the crimes perpetrated on the majority of Cambodia," wrote lawyer
Georges-Henri Beauthier, who is also president of the Belgian Human Rights League.
Ong said that he expected more families to join the suit; all the plaintiffs are
The case is brought partially under Belgian domestic laws but also under international
law; crimes against humanity are traditionally considered as crimes erga omnes, or
against all, and can theoretically be heard in any court, while war crimes charges
are based partly on the Geneva Conventions.
"The Belgians of Cambodian origin are very motivated to reclaim justice,"
said Ong. "This is the first time that they have done something by themselves
for their dead parents ... It's very important for each of us."
The complaint stated the plaintiffs stand ready to give testimony on KR crimes and
also referred the court to the report on Cambodia presented to the UN Sub-Committee
on Human Rights in 1979.
The plaintiffs are now waiting to see whether the court decides that the charges
in their complaint deserve investigation. Ong said an investigative commission might
be set up - which would allow a Belgian investigation in Cambodia. The court could
also issue an international arrest warrant.
Belgium and Cambodia do not have an extradition treaty, however a warrant can be
executed in a third country as has happened with Pinochet who has been detained in
Britain on a Spainish arrest warrant.
The judge is due to commence his inquiry by the beginning of March.
Ong, a former Funcinpec member who is now head of the Sam Rainsy Party in Belgium,
has tried to pursue justice against the KR before. After surviving the killing fields,
he came to Phnom Penh and researched evidence of atrocities in Tuol Sleng's archives.
He said he has been disappointed that no legal action has ever been taken against
the KR except for the 1979 show trial in Phnom Penh against KR supremo Pol Pot and
"[The '79 trial] was nothing other than a judicial comedy," he said. "I
think to honor the memory of the dead, it is necessary to have a process worthy of
the name. It is for this reason I do not believe a process could be organized in
Ong added that he hoped to work with the Documentation Center of Cambodia here in
Phnom Penh, but director Youk Chhang said he knew little about the case so far.
Experts have said that the DC-Cam's archives contain solid documentary evidence implicating
Nuon Chea of crimes against humanity, including murder and torture, although the
case against Samphan and Sary are more circumstantial.
A group of UN legal experts examined that evidence in November, and are due to present
recommendations on a possible international KR tribunal to UN Secretary-General Kofi
Annan at the end of the month.
But the separate Belgian action is moving more quickly, and Ong is hopeful about
his quest for legal and moral justice.
"This action targets on the one hand, the reestablishment of the truth and of
justice, and on the other hand, the defense and promotion of human rights and democracy
in Cambodia and in the world," he said. "It is to show respect to the dead
loved ones and this action is a moral duty to their memory," he said.