Phnom Penh, Cambodia – In 1975, the story of Cambodia was forever altered.
The central city of Phnom Penh, already swollen with frightened people from the countryside seeking refuge from a steadily growing conflict that began nearly five years before, had watched in fear as ultra-communist forces marched on the capital.
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On the morning of April 17, the Khmer Rouge began a citywide evacuation that would last for several weeks, displacing as many as 2.6 million people and killing thousands. The era of the Khmer Rouge resulted in the deaths of nearly two million people and secured a gruesome place in history.
Decades have passed since the fall of the Khmer Rouge and many of the regime’s key leaders have died. Still, the world will be watching Cambodia this week to witness what could be a last chance at justice for the survivors of that era.
For the first time since the judges were sworn in eight years ago, a UN-aided tribunal in Phnom Penh will hand down verdicts on Thursday to two senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime: 88-year-old Nuon Chea – known as “Brother Number Two” – who acted as the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and 83-year-old Khieu Samphan, the former head of state.
Despite the lengthy court process, which began in 2001, the verdicts represent the end of only part one of what is formally called Case 002, covering charges of crimes against humanity for the alleged roles of the accused in forced evacuations of Phnom Penh and other areas between 1975 and 1979. Hearings for more serious charges, such as genocide, mass murder and torture are expected to be held later this year.
Most people expect a guilty verdict.
“Most people expect a guilty verdict,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“It’s important, but I don’t think most Cambodian people will pay attention. You won’t see people in the street running in jubilation,” the long-time observer of the court told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a country of young people. Most people didn’t live through it. Most of the young people are not paying attention to it at all,” he added.
The surviving two defendants are both in their 80s.
Under consideration were the defendants’ age and the fact that they have been accused of committing so many atrocities that it would have been impossible to address all the accusations in one trial.
Lars Olsen, a legal officer for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of the Cambodia (ECCC) – as the tribunal is officially known – explained during a press briefing on Tuesday that the indictment is 350 pages long and that in 2011, the tribunal judges concluded the enormity of the charges was too much for one trial.
“Also, because it has not been a secret that the accused in this case are of advanced age and there is a concern to at least reach a conclusion of some of the criminal charges, either within the lifetime of the accused or as long as the accused are fit to stand trial,” Olsen told reporters.
In other words, the court wanted to finish at least part of the trial before the remaining defendants die or become too sick to face charges.
And then there were two
It appears the decision by the judges to sever Case 002 was only half successful.
Originally, four former Khmer Rouge leaders were charged under what the court refers to as Case 002/01, but leng Sary, the foreign minister under the Khmer Rouge, died last year at the age of 87, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, 82, was found to be too ill to stand trial in 2012.
On Tuesday, Olsen assured members of the media that the only remaining defendants – Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan – are still scheduled to appear at Thursday’s verdict hearing, despite their advanced age and ailing health.
For some, regardless of the verdict, it is a matter of too little, too late.
Chin Neth, 57, a victim from Kompong Thom province who was imprisoned at the notorious S-21 prison by the Khmer Rouge for being a spy, expressed outraged at the extended tribunal process, as well as the fact that none of the accused on trial have confessed to their crimes.
“It is not satisfying and is not justice for us, because some of them are old or have already died,” Chin Neth told Al Jazeera.
“Also, [the accused] did not speak the truth and some of them have not confessed or accept their bad deeds,” he added.
Money and independence
Over the years, the tribunal has taken its fair share of criticism.
|Cambodia Khmer Rouge trial nears end|
Initially, in 2004, the ECCC set its total budget at $56.3m.
But over the years that budget has seen several revisions. By of the end of 2013, total expenditure amounted to $204.6m – a hefty price tag for only three verdicts, including the one already issued in 2010 against Kaing Guek Eav, also known as “Duch”, the warden of Toul Sleng prison.
“It’s the most expensive court, by far, per defendant,” Anne Heindel, an expert in international law who monitors the court as an adviser to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, told Al Jazeera back in 2012, before Ieng Sary passed away. But perhaps most frustrating to those who monitor the court is apparent lack of independence from Cambodia’s government.
In 2010, Prime Minister Hun Sen told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he would not allow the tribunal to prosecute anyone beyond those named in Case 002.
Additionally, two international judges have stepped down since the tribunal began – Laurent Kasper-Ansermet in 2012 and Siegfried Blunk the year before. Both cited government interference as their reasons for leaving.
“Judges felt they could not do their job properly,” said CCHR’s Ou Virak.
However, despite the octogenarian status of the diminishing number of defendants, the high financial cost of the proceedings, and the apparent government interference in the court, there are those who say it has been worth it.
“We do not need perfect justice, but justice for the spirit for the hearts of the victims,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“Justice does not mean the accused must be jailed. In fact, the existence of the ECCC is some kind of justice in itself.”
Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin.
Follow James Welsh on Twitter: @HackWelsh