Cambodia Prepares for Khmer Rouge Trials

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge during their brief reign of terror in the 1970s. No one has ever been tried for the crimes, but that may soon change. A joint U.N.-Cambodia tribunal has begun work on indictments.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Nearly 30 years after the genocide in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, someone may finally be held responsible. A joint U.N.-Cambodian tribunal is working on indictments that could come within a year.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Phnom Penh.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: There're building a new road and a new bridge to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, just seven miles outside the capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

SULLIVAN: The foreign funded project will cut the travel time to Choeung Ek by half, making it much easier for tourists to visit the site with its glass cased, eight-story-tall monument filled with the skulls of Khmer Rouge's victims. The road project foreman, Sabun Tun(ph), says more visitors are okay, but justice, he says, would be even better.

SABUN TUN: (Through translator) Nearly 20 member of my family were killed by the Khmer Rouge: my father, my sister, my aunts, and uncle, all gone. I'd like to see some justice for them and for all the people who have suffered, but I don't really think it will happen.

SULLIVAN: In the three decades since the Khmer Rouge left nearly two million dead, not a single person has been held accountable. And hopes for a trial, for justice, have been lifted then dashed so often that many here, like Sabun Tun, have given up on the idea; prematurely, as it turns out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

TUN: This is the place where the trial will take place, and this is completely brand new. And the prosecutor and the judges and the defenders, they will supposed to sit up there. So the suspects may stand here, you know, and...

SULLIVAN: Last month, a special tribunal officially began work to bring those most responsible for the crimes to justice. There's a $56 million budget and a three-year timetable, and a commitment, says tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath, to convince Cambodians the trial is happening. Part of that effort involves bringing village heads and ordinary people here for a look at the courtroom in a military compound not far from the airport.

REACH SAMBATH: In Cambodia, and I think they have in English say, seeing is believing. So this is what we want. So we try to tell them be firm and wait. Everything will be ready. So we just make them feel confident.

SULLIVAN: For a long time, Reach Sambath too refused to believe the trial would take place. He lost his mother, father, and four brothers to the Khmer Rouge. Now, he says, he has an opportunity to help them and all the others.

SAMBATH: I'm working here, I call myself a spokesman for the ghosts, for those who died many, many years ago. So a spokesman for the dead.

SULLIVAN: The tribunal plans to broadcast the proceedings live on Cambodian radio and television, hoping that and the outreach will help encourage victims to come forward and participate in the process.

Prosecuting individuals for crimes committed nearly 30 years ago presents a number of challenges. Some leaders like Pol Pot have already died. Others are either ailing or living abroad.

But the prosecution will be aided by the Khmer Rouge's own meticulous record keeping, and by work done by some here to insure the past is not forgotten.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: For more than a decade, workers at the Documentation Center of Cambodia have patiently compiled information on the mass killings. Many volunteers like these take part in a few days of classroom training before being sent out to the villages to talk to the people, to hear their stories of that time, and to write it all down to help create a permanent record.

And much of the information already gathered, says the Center's director Youk Chhang, has now found a home.

YOUK CHHANG: We have so far provided almost 400,000 page of document to the tribunal already since January 2006.

SULLIVAN: And that, he says, is only the beginning. Youk Chhang lost his mother and his sister to the Khmer Rouge, but he insists his motive is not revenge or retribution, but reconciliation and putting an end to what many here call the culture of impunity - a culture that has allowed those in power or near power to act without fear of consequences.

CHHANG: Clearly, the very simple message that we should give to the victim, to the people of Cambodia - anybody who commit crime must be punished. You don't have to commit crime against 1.7 million. Even though you commit crime against one individual, you also must be punished. And I think that would be the legacy of the tribunal. Leave behind a process to build a foundation for rule of law.

SULLIVAN: The rule of law has been largely absent in Cambodia for decades. Corruption has flourished and has helped lead to a weak judiciary subject to political manipulation.

Some observers worry the tribunal may be subject to political pressure as well, especially if the testimony implicates some currently in government. The tribunal is a hybrid affair subject to Cambodian - not international - law. And critics say this makes the tribunal deeply, perhaps fatally flawed.

The U.N. prosecutor here, Robert Petit, disagrees.

ROBERT PETIT: It's certainly not what a lot of people would want it to be. It's not necessarily what I would want it to be either. But I mean real life is like that; it's seldom perfect.

SULLIVAN: Petit has lots of experience doing this kind of work in Rwanda and in Kosovo, in East Timor and Sierra Leone, too.

He rejects the idea that imperfect means a waste a time, and says he wouldn't be here if he thought it did.

PETIT: What we have now is the only forum by which these people, and by that I mean victims, will have a chance to stop being victims, take a little bit of control to what happened to them, and come and tell the world what did happen to them and try and get some sense of why.

So doing the best that we can with what we have now will bring a measure of justice, however imperfect it is.

SULLIVAN: The Cambodian Documentation Center's Youk Chhang agrees.

CHHANG: To me, the victim are the judge of the process itself. They will decide whether it's flawed or not flawed. The outcome that people expect is some kind of understanding. You know, they're ready to forgive, but they want to know who to forgive and why.

SULLIVAN: The trial could start early next year.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Michael Sullivan, who's just finished a reporting trip to Cambodia. And, Michael, one more question. Is there more that the international community could be doing to help these trials along?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think they've done probably all that they could do at this point. I mean the very fact that these things have finally gotten to the point where a trial - the proceedings have actually started. And a trial looks like it's actually going to happen some time next year after many, many years of indecision, of delays, of foot dragging.

The international community has put together a $56 million budget and a three- year timetable to do this. And I think a lot of people here are just thinking to themselves, well, this is probably the best we can do at the moment.

INSKEEP: Are Cambodians comfortable with the international community offering, in a sense, to settle their scores?

SULLIVAN: It's not just the international community that's going to be settling the score, because obviously this is a joint tribunal. And, you know, you get different reactions from people. I mean some people are very grateful that after all this time something is going to be done. But a lot of other people are just skeptical that anything real will come out of this.

I mean, they say, take that $56 million and spend it on poverty alleviation. I mean that would do a lot more for us than this trial which many people believe - still believe isn't really going to get to the root, get to the causes, get the justice that these people are really seeking.

INSKEEP: Okay, Michael. Thanks very much for your insights. That's NPR's Michael Sullivan, who's just finished a reporting trip to Cambodia.

MONTAGNE: As the Catholic writer Thomas Merton once remarked about the Nazis, labeling the killers as insane or inherently evil wrongly permits us the comfort of believing that normal people, ordinarily decent people could never commit these crimes, that only the insane and the cruel could do so. The real horror is that most perpetrators are ordinary people.

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