The Ongoing Fight For Justice For War Crime Victims In Cambodia

Over the past week, prosecutors gave closing arguments in the case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two top members of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime. Host Arun Rath speaks with journalist Elizabeth Becker about the U.N. tribunal trying the Khmer Rouge members for war crimes. Becker covered the conflict in Cambodia in the 1970s and was one of the few journalists to enter the country while the Khmer Rouge was in power. She is the author of When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

One out of five Cambodians died under the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. About 1.7 million people dead in a country less than half the size of California. There has been very little accountability for those crimes. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died at the age of 72 as he slept in his own bed.

International prosecutors have not given up hope for some justice at least. This past week, a joint U.N. and Cambodian prosecution team finished closing arguments in the war crimes trial against two of Pol Pot's lieutenants.

Elizabeth Becker is a journalist and one of the few Westerners to see the country under the Khmer Rouge. She told me about who these two defendants are.

ELIZABETH BECKER: They're the last two leading figures of the Khmer Rouge movement. Nuon Chea was number two, very much the lieutenant to Pol Pot, who ran the country. Khieu Samphan was essentially the head of state, sort of an ideologue leader. There were two others who have been - one who's been dismissed, Ieng Thirith, the only woman, minister of social affairs. She has dementia. And her husband Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister who died this March. So from the four defendants, we're down to two.

RATH: So I want to go over what they exactly were accused of doing during this time.

BECKER: It's essentially leading a country that from the first day of victory enslaves the population, with mass human rights violations, throwing people out of their houses with no medical facilities. Many people dying on the way to the countryside where they were treated like slaves in labor camps, targeting minorities, getting rid of all the religions, getting rid of education. Essentially, it's mass human rights violations and genocide.

RATH: Can you put it into some context? How many others have faced justice?

BECKER: There's only been one conviction so far, and that was a man who ran the Tuol Sleng torture center. His nickname is Duch. And he confessed before, in fact, the trial, and he was convicted and is now spending his life in prison. This trial started about 11 months ago.

RATH: You covered Cambodia as a reporter for the Washington Post. You're one of just a small handful of Westerners that was able to visit Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign. Did you ever interview these men?

BECKER: Yes. I interviewed Pol Pot the day before the Vietnamese invasion that essentially overthrew him. And I interviewed Ieng Sary as well and Ieng Thirith. So a lot of my material, in fact, is being used as evidence in the trial.

RATH: When you interviewed these men, the key figures in the regime, what was your sense of their conscience, their sense of what they had done?

BECKER: Well, it was definitely a learning experience. When I've interviewed them, this was at the end of the regime or after its collapse. And there was no question, they were on their guard. To this day, they did not admit to guilt for what they did. And they had that revolutionary dogma that no matter what they did, it was for the good of the country. And they never changed.

RATH: With the delay in justice and for so much of younger Cambodians, this history's almost an abstraction. What does this trial mean for Cambodia today?

BECKER: It's meant a lot to the country because finally, the world has acknowledged that they went through hell. And it's hard to exaggerate what it means when you know that your parents, your grandparents, the people in your village or in the city neighborhood, they've all talked about it to you. But the outside world never quite brought it to a trial. So this trial confirms that yes, this was genocide. And it also shows that, in a sense, that there is such a thing as justice.

Can you imagine Germany, if there had never been any trials after the Holocaust? It would be unthinkable. And that's what's happening in Cambodia right now.

RATH: That's Elizabeth Becker. She's the author of "When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution" and more recently "Overbooked." Elizabeth, thank you so much.

BECKER: Thank you.

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