An 88-year-old former leader of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge died this week. From 1975 to 1979, Ieng Sary served as the foreign minister of Cambodia’s totalitarian regime — a regime that despised everything foreign. Ieng Sary was also the brother-in-law to the Khmer Rouge’s despotic leader Pol Pot.
It has been thirty-four years since the fall of Khmer Rouge and the end of the genocide that resulted in the death of 2 million Cambodians, 25% of the population. But in that time, only one man has been tried and convicted of crimes against humanity.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is located 30 minutes outside the center of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. It is out past the airport, and the high-rises and bustle of the city center. The court is accessed through a nondescript guard post that leads to a dirt road lined with trees, and finally the standalone buildings of the court.
The ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is a quasi-national and international tribunal established in 2003 to bring to justice the puppet masters of Pol Pot’s genocide.
Anyone can attend the hearings. I visited the trials a month ago, taking the morning off work while living in Phnom Penh. I went on a Tuesday, relinquishing my phone at the gate and then a coffee candy at the door to the Court. The candy went on a table scattered with the small contraband of purses and pockets — candies, containers of tiger balm, and packets of betel nut.
Every day men and women from the countryside are bused in to watch the halting steps of justice. There are mainly older women who fill the seats of the auditorium — women with shaved heads, sarongs, white cotton shirts and checkered karma. These women rarely see foreigners. Some smiled or nodded in my direction; a few squeezed my arm in approval. These grandmothers and mothers would have been young women during Pol Pot’s regime.
The single perpetrator sentenced by the ECCC was not Pol Pot. Pol Pot died in his house fourteen years ago — possibly from a heart attack, possibly from suicide — the same night he learned that he would be tried by an international tribunal.
As of now, the only person serving time for the murder of two million Cambodians is the man nick-named "Duch" (Kaing Guek Eav) who headed Tuol Sleng Prision (S-21) in the heart of Phnom Penh.
At Tuol Sleng, Duch orchestrated the cleansing of traitors and spies from Khmer society — extracting confessions under torture from ten-year-old children and 80-year-old grandmothers, ultimately condemning over 12,000 people to death. After hiding for 21 years, Duch was discovered by a photojournalist 13 years ago. He was the first to be tried by the ECCC in 2007 and three years later was found guilty of crimes against humanity.
The ECCC is now deep into trial #2, 34 years later. Three men originally stood accused: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. Ieng Sary is now dead, having gone to the grave without a conviction.
Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith was also originally part of trial #2. She was charged with planning and directing mass purges and killings, but she was released a year ago due to severe Alzheimer’s. She is one of the few who has been able to forget.
The morning I visited the ECCC, the prosecution was in the midst of presenting documentary evidence. The process was slow and slightly stiff. The lawyers read from a six-inch-thick binder, referencing previously presented evidence and citing numbered documents.
The prosecution played a video interview with Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two — Pol Pot’s right hand man. In the video, the interviewer asks Nuon Chea why children, as young as ten, were conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army:
"They were fighting for social equality that they haven’t had since the 2nd Angkor Period."
"But why children?"
"I ignore the reasons … Without Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Cambodia would have been in the hands of the Vietnamese."
Nuon Chea was absent from the courtroom the morning I attended court. He has been in and out of the hospital for months now, most recently with acute bronchitis. Khieu Samphan, former head of state, is also frequently in the hospital. Before his death, Ieng Sary too had been periodically hospitalized.
The orchestrators of Democratic Kampuchea, the men and women who worked for the almighty, faceless Angka, are slowly dying. But almost all remain uncharged. The trials churn painstakingly onwards. Political influence and corruption are posing significant impediments.
Ieng Sary was still alive the morning I attended the tribunal. He and Khieu Samphan sat silently the entire time, off to the side, behind their lawyers. They were small men – wrinkled and sunken-eyed — disturbingly easy to overlook in the grandeur of the courtroom.