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The trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary

The trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary

'Genocide in Cambodia: Documents from the Trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.'

Howard J. De Nike, John Quigley and Kenneth J. Robinson (Eds), University of Pennsylvania

Press, Philadelphia, 2000.

Review by Bill Bainbridge

Although the epithet "show trial" is usually attached to the 1979 conviction

of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, the editors of this recent publication of the trial documents

ask us to look again.

From August 15 to 19 1979, just seven months after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge,

the Chaktomuk theater reverberated with stories of the Pol Pot years.

For more than three years Cambodians had been forced to speak only in whispers, as

any sign of dissent could easily lead to torture or death. The trial broke the silence,

allowing out story upon story of misery, violence and deprivation.

"The bitterest period of my life came after the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique of

traitors seized power in Kampuchea," Mr Ung Pech told the People's Revolutionary

Tribunal before giving details of the torture and deprivation he and other prisoners

endured in Toul Sleng.

When Pech finally emerged from captivity he found that out of 48 family members only

his son had survived the Khmer Rouge era.

Pech's testimony is merely the first of 70 pages of witness statements to the tribunal

that at the time went mostly unheard in the outside world.

In January 1992 the academic and librarian Dr Helen Jarvis rediscovered the trial

documents wrapped in brown paper on a bookshelf on the ground floor of Cambodia's

National Archives.

Although a limited version of the trial documents had been published in 1990, the

original documents had spent most of the previous decade gathering dust. Together

with archives staffer Lim Ky, Dr Jarvis began the long process of sorting and preserving

the documents. In her introductory essay she notes that at the time the Khmer Rouge

threat was far from over: her first priority was to see the documents salvaged from

any possible resurgence.

The documents form a valuable insight into what Dr Jarvis describes as the "important,

though limited, political and legal proceeding".

The documents are not only testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, but also bear

witness to the carefully controlled politics of the court and the bizarre conduct

of the "defense" counsel.

The trial was over in three days; witnesses were pre-selected based on their statements;

and, while the court adopted the right to cross-examine witnesses, virtually no cross-examinations

were done and the defense lawyers hardly appear in the documents.

The exception is their closing statements in which they make no attempt to defend

their clients, but try to shift the blame to "reactionary, expansionist, hege-

monists in Peking" - something for which Quigley in his introduction notes that

there was no direct evidence at the trial.

The witness statements have the kind of ring that has made historians and legal scholars

question whether these were heavily coached statements of participants in a "show


A great many of the statements begin with a ritualistic attack on the "Pol Pot-Ieng

Sary clique", blame Pol Pot and Ieng Sary directly for events at which they

weren't present, and contain lavish praise for the National Front for the Salvation

of Kampuchea.

In his essay Quigley, one of the few western lawyers to witness the trial first hand,

offers a few possible explanations other than political coercion, including a desire

by witnesses to ingratiate themselves with the government, the standardizing of text

by court secretaries, and the use of jargon.

By reading around these oft repeated phrases, the stories still have a powerful ring

of memories fresh from the killing fields and accord fairly closely with what is

now widely known of the Pol Pot years.

Nonetheless the political context of the trial is impossible to overlook. The authorities

in Phnom Penh sought both to discredit the Pol Pot regime and gain international

recognition for the new government.

Presiding judge Keo Chanda told the court that the aim of the trial was to "

the peoples of the world the true face of the criminals who are posing as the representatives

of the people of Kampuchea".

But the world wasn't watching. Despite the Cambodian government conducting the first

genocide tribunal under the United Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention, and seeking

international assistance, it was shunned by Western nations that preferred to recognize

the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government.

Ultimately the documents do not demonstrate a credible trial but they do represent

a critical moment in the recording and publicizing of the regime - "important

but limited" as Dr Jarvis writes.

The gaping hole in both the trial and the book is any testimony from the accused.

Both were tried in absentia - a move criticized by legal scholars, but permissible

under French law which envisions a retrial should the defendants ever reappear. While

we will never have a full and public account from Pol Pot, there is still hope that

the testimony of Ieng Sary may yet find its way in to the public record.


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