The unique nature of victims’ participation at the Khmer Rouge tribunal took centre stage yesterday, as the questioning of civil party Nhip Horl reignited a debate on the very purpose of civil-party testimony.
Horl, initially questioned by the prosecution, recalled his evacuation from his village in 1975 and his transfer to the Trapeang Thma Dam worksite in 1977.
“Kinship, relationships between human beings, they did not exist at that time; they were prohibited,” he said.
However, as testimony continued about the conditions at the dam, Nuon Chea defender Victor Koppe raised objections on the grounds that questions should relate to the nature and extent of the injury allegedly suffered by Horl, rather than his experiences as they relate to the facts of the case.
Under the court’s Internal Rule 23, recognised victims at the Khmer Rouge tribunal are able to “participate in criminal proceedings . . . by supporting the prosecution”, and are eligible to receive collective, non-monetary reparations in the event of a guilty verdict.
Though they are frequently questioned in court, they are technically distinct from witnesses, and do not take an oath before testifying.
A primary concern for Koppe was that the strictures that govern witness testimony do not apply in the case of civil parties, a point that trial chamber president Nil Nonn conceded – albeit without sustaining Koppe’s objection.
Civil party lead co-lawyer Marie Guiraud, however, felt the objections were inappropriate.
“I think the [defence] counsel should stop objecting and read the rules so he may understand a little what we are doing in this trial,” Guiraud said.
Proceedings continued smoothly for a time, as Horl described the injuries he suffered as a result of his time at the worksite, telling the court that he “suffer[ed] from post traumatic stress disorder”, and was “very anguished”.
However, it was soon Koppe’s turn to draw objections when he attempted to press Horl on the legitimacy of his claims, which the prosecution and civil party teams characterised as an attempt to challenge Horl’s very status as a civil party.
“So there is no possibility of establishing that the harm he has suffered . . . is due to the conditions at [the] worksite?” Koppe asked.
The prosecution and civil parties charged that questions of this nature should have been raised when civil parties were first admitted in 2010, while both the Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan teams contended that the opportunity had never arisen.
“There is no way to assess the credibility of this civil party, so we have reached the limit of the logic of this trial,” Samphan defender Arthur Vercken added before the issue was dropped.
In spite of the debate over the validity of civil party testimony, Horl concluded the day with an emotional description of the hardships he had experienced at the hands of the regime.
“I cannot mention all the suffering I endured,” he said.