Khmer Rouge war crimes court winds up with survivors still hurting

PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s UN-backed court set up to try Khmer Rouge leaders finishes its work this week, ending a 16-year process that has helped national reconciliation but brought only limited solace to survivors of the genocidal regime.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will on Thursday give its judgment in the appeal by 91-year-old former head of state Khieu Samphan against his 2018 conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity.

It will be the last verdict given by the tribunal, which has cost more than US$330 million (S$465 million) and been dogged by complaints about the slowness of its work as well as allegations of interference by Cambodia’s ruling party.

For Mr Chum Mey, one of only a handful of survivors of the notorious S-21 torture prison, nothing will erase the trauma of the Khmer Rouge butchering his wife and four children.

“Only when I die, then I can forget everything,” he told AFP inside S-21, once a school and now a museum chronicling the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

Under leader Pol Pot, two million Cambodians died from starvation, torture, forced labour and mass execution – nearly a quarter of the kingdom’s population was wiped out by the ultra-communist regime as it sought to create an agrarian utopia.

Khieu Samphan is one of only three top leaders convicted by the special court, along with “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea – considered the regime’s chief ideologue – and S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.

Two previous appeals have been unsuccessful – in fact, the court increased Duch’s sentence on appeal.

Difficult start

The court had a difficult birth.

In 1997, the Cambodian government asked for the United Nations’ help in judging Khmer Rouge leaders.

But it rejected the idea of another International Criminal Tribunal along the lines of those created for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, insisting on a sovereign court run by Cambodian and international judges.