Scenes From a Khmer Rouge Trial Gone Wrong

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The UN-backed tribunal is faltering under corruption and infighting, leaving Cambodians to wonder if they will ever see justice

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"Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea attends a hearing for former Khmer Rouge leaders on the outskirts of Phnom Penh / Reuters

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Sem Hoeurn spent three years, eight months and 20 days of her childhood a virtual slave in the service of a government she knew only as Angkar -- the Organization.

Hoeurn was 10 years old when the paranoid and murderous Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, seized power, and attempted to engineer an "awesomely great leap forward" that ultimately led to the deaths of some 1.7 million people. She was conscripted into a children's labor unit and ordered to collect piles of bones from execution sites to dispose of in nearby rice paddies. By the time the regime was ousted nearly four years later in 1979, Hoeurn's father and brothers had all been tortured and executed by Angkar, which had the all-seeing "eyes of a pineapple," as one revolutionary dictum had it.

But this summer, along with hundreds of other victims of the regime, Hoeurn finally caught a glimpse of the aged and ailing remnants of Angkar in person for the first time as they shuffled into the dock at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, where a landmark trial against the Khmer Rouge regime's four senior-most surviving leaders began on June 27. The eyes of the Cambodian people were at last on them.

"When I first saw the four accused, the bitter memory of mass killing under the Pol Pot regime came back to my mind," Hoeurn said. "I wanted to run into them and tear them apart."

The case against these four senior living lieutenants of Pol Pot -- Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, the regime's chief ideologue; head of state Khieu Samphan; Foreign Minister Ieng Sary; and his wife, Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith, who was also the regime's de facto first lady -- is expected to be perhaps the most complex such trial ever prosecuted. The trial must explore a vast array of crimes committed decades ago, most of them indirectly and through an elaborate chain of command.

Unlike the tribunal's first defendant, the sycophantic prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, who was tried in 2009, the four top leaders have remained sullen and defiant since their arrests, largely declining to cooperate with the court and fiercely contesting the charges against them. All four were detained in 2007 after years of freedom in semi-autonomous fiefdoms along the Thai border. Even after the Khmer Rouge splintered and crumbled in the late 1990s, the top leaders were either pardoned or tolerated by the Cambodian government. Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith lived in a luxurious mansion in central Phnom Penh. Khieu Samphan published a book blaming everything on Pol Pot.

In their sporadic public appearances since they were jailed, the four leaders have expressed a persistent sense of bewilderment at finding themselves up against a system they cannot wheedle or threaten their way out of. During a bail hearing in 2009, Ieng Thirith said that anyone accusing her of a crime would be cursed "to the seventh circle of hell."

Watching the defendants flail induces a certain amount of justifiable schadenfreude among Cambodians following the trial. (This is bolstered by the trial's frequent and detailed dissections of the defendants' health. Among other things, we have learned recently that Nuon Chea's balding pate gets chilly in air-conditioned rooms, and that Ieng Sary, beset with kidney problems, needs to urinate every 20 minutes.) Around Phnom Penh, some slyly transpose a vowel in the court's name, changing it from Sala Kat K'dey Khmer Krahom - "the court dealing with the issue of the Khmer Rouge" -- to Sala Kat K'daw Khmer Krahom, which translates to "the court for cutting off the dicks of the Khmer Rouge."

The public has been especially riveted by the bizarre sight of Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's remorseless second-in-command, sporting sunglasses and a striped ski cap pulled down low over his ears, practically swimming in his clothes. He resembled a superannuated bank robber as he rose on the first day of the trial to announce, "I am not happy with this hearing." He then staged a three-day walkout over the judges' refusal to hear the hundreds of witnesses he had proposed.

"Mr. Nuon Chea said he was unhappy with the court. Well, I wasn't so happy to see him either!" said Prach Vanna, a victim who was watching in the audience. "It wasn't much of a surprise to see him complaining."

The trial so far has been largely procedural, with evidence hearing delayed until early 2012. There are serious concerns that one or more of the defendants will not live through the end of the proceedings, which will likely last for years. Ieng Thirith is already displaying signs of dementia and may not be able to be tried at all. But the very fact that the case is creeping forward is a powerful symbol of justice for Cambodians, given the impunity and corruption that have plagued this nation for decades.

But just at the moment the tribunal, the culmination of 14 years of painstaking negotiations, should be enjoying its greatest triumph, it is being riven by internal politics. The conflicts are over two other cases, known in court parlance as 003 and 004, that many people -- including the Cambodian prime minister and his entire government -- hope never get tried at all.

The United Nations agreed to back the $150-million tribunal on the condition that it enjoy complete judicial independence from the Cambodian government. Its "hybrid" structure, with Cambodian and foreign judges and lawyers working in teams, was meant to provide a check against the hopelessly corrupt Cambodian judicial system. Meanwhile, the influence of the foreigners would, theoretically, help train Cambodian jurists -- who tend to range from breezily inept to brazenly crooked -- in international best practices.

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Julia Wallace is a writer living in Phnom Penh.

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