The unspeakable atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge party against the Cambodian people will live in infamy as one of the most heartrending abominations in history. Even to this day, Cambodians reportedly still suffer the effects of the four-year long communist-driven massacre. And even after the Mao-inspired Pol Pot was apprehended, he still instructed the Khmer to carry out its brutalities for years to come from beyond his prison cell.
Sadly, justice was never really served for the Cambodian people. Pol Pot died an infirm man in prison in 1998, never having been put on trial. Likewise, the Khmer's leading officials either fled or also died in prison, escaping trial. There was no Nuremberg moment for the Cambodians. But now, a UN tribunal formed with the "Extraordinary Chambers" in the Courts of Cambodia is currently trying the top remaining officials of the Khmer Rouge. The key word, however, is "remaining." Obviously, the ones on trial are now ailing octogenarians.
The court trying four of the surviving leaders of the Cambodian Communist Party is a joint creation of the United Nations and Cambodia. The defendants in the ongoing trial are “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary, and Sary’s wife, the minister of social action, Ieng Thirith. The charges against the foursome include genocide, crimes against humanity, religious persecution, war crimes, torture, and murder. The regime’s leader, Pol Pot, died of a heart attack in the custody of fellow Communist guerrillas in 1998.
The trial overflows with controversy. The visual of the infirm accused—with Pol Pot deputy Nuon Chea even wearing a winter cap in the air-conditioned courtroom to go along with his ever-present sunglasses—departing the proceedings for the comfort of their cells has provoked competing reactions. Adding jail time to the punishment of Father Time appears as overkill to some. Others have difficulty finding sympathy for people who engineered the murders of so many. With the ages of the defendants ranging from 79 to 84, whatever time they spend behind bars will certainly be brief.
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has pressured the court to refrain from instigating additional trials. The unannounced decision not to pursue more cases sparked several resignations among the special tribunal’s legal staff and cast a cloud over the process. A proposed “Case 3” would have targeted Sou Met and Meas Mut, who now serve as generals in Hun Sen’s army. The squashing of these indictments, along with an earlier sentence reduction for the lone Khmer Rouge official convicted of crimes relating to the late-’70s regime, provokes speculation of whether impartial justice is possible for the Communist killers in a country essentially run by their former comrades.
For such heinous crimes against humanity, this certainly seems to fall painfully short.
While the exact numbers defy calculation -- under the direction of Pol Pot from the mid to late 1970's, the Khmer Rouge systematically slaughtered an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians -- roughly 20 percent of the country's population. For Pol Pot's agrarian society to work, Cambodians were turned into slave laborers. The poor were pitted against the rich, husbands against wives, and the fiercely atheist Khmer saw to it no one of faith would survive. Muslims, Christians and Buddhists alike were murdered en masse. In fact, under the Khmer, the population of Buddhist monks fell from 60,000 to 1,000. The "handicapped," the "intellectual," the "religious," the "independent," the "wealthy," the "weak" and "old," all were targets. People who wore eyeglasses were summarily executed simply on the basis that, to Pol Pot, eyeglasses were a symbol of two big no-no's: wealth and intelligence.
In order to bring about Pol Pot's "utopia" no "undesirable" -- who, for Pol Pot, was everyone with whom he disagreed -- was spared during the Khmer's expansive purging efforts. In the wake of Pol Pot's killing fields -- such a chapter of human suffering and degradation -- does this tribunal even come close to what the Cambodians deserve?
In this case, perhaps justice deferred is justice denied.
Warning: the following photos contain graphic images