War Crimes Court Crawls Towards a Close in Phnom Penh

Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power is a widely syndicated correspondent focused on international affairs




At the first war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg at the end of World War II a total of 23 accused stood at the dock. The trial lasted 13 months. By comparison only 5 accused stood at the dock at the Pennon Pen trial. Yet the proceedings have now lasted 7 years and still running.

Organized jointly by the UN and the government of Cambodia the trial is unlikely to come to an end by the end of the summer, and may spill into next year.  

One accused, Kaing Guek Eav was convicted in 2010 and received a sentence of 35 years in jail.  Another, the only woman, was released on health grounds. Just 3 accused remain at the dock.

I put the question lately to diplomats on the scene and to the judges on the court. Why the delay? Nobody had a clear answer. Yet the evidence for what was after all one of the worst genocides of its type was growing on the trees. Every major news outlet had reported and documented the tragedy in some detail while it lasted.

Others have pointed to the atmosphere of tolerance in the court that allows the defense to hold up proceedings with diversions upon diversions. The French lawyers who make up the defense team seem to be in want of a sense of right and wrong.

At the courtroom I watched as one of the lawyers interrupted proceedings and argued that the war crime accused persons should be placed under house arrest instead of being held, in their by any standard, quite well appointed cells, individual rooms, complete with television and attached health facilities. The presiding judge overruled the lawyer, but he would not budge.

Now it is one thing for the defense to argue points of law and to try to shorten jail terms for their clients. But when they know that this was perhaps the second worst genocide of the twentieth century some reserve would not be amiss.

It is a tragedy that it took 27 years,  from the day Pot Pot, the genocide master minder, and his Khmer Rouge regime were overthrown, to get the court rolling. The atrocities in Cambodia occurred of course at the heights of the cold war. Nevertheless It was still incredible that the West, voted to keep the Khmer Rouge flag flying outside the UN while the killings in Cambodia were going on and everyone knew they were going on. What a relief to see the wheels of justice rolling now, no matter how late in the day.