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Death of Khmer Rouge leader does little for justice

Ate Hoekstra
Dul Hab will always remember the day his father disappeared.
“The Khmer Rouge soldiers tied his hands and took him away. Even now we don’t know where they killed him, but we do know that they did it because he was a district official,” the 64-year-old said, speaking from his home in Koh Kong, southwestern Cambodia.
Hab’s father was one of an estimated 1.7 million people who died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that wanted to transform Cambodia into a communist-style agrarian utopia and ruled the impoverished nation from January 1975 to April 1979.
August 4 saw the passing of, Nuon Chea, one of the last high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders. He was 93-years-old and was widely seen as the regime’s ideologue. He was also known as Brother No. 2, the second in command after Pol Pot, who died in 1998.
Together with Khieu Samphan, Ieng Thirith and Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea was put on trial by the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) in 2011. With Sary and his, wife Thirith, having passed away several years ago, only Samphan and Chea ended up being convicted for their crimes.
With just these two life sentences being served, Dul Hab doesn’t feel that he received justice for his suffering. As a Muslim he was much more of a target for the Khmer Rouge than the average Cambodian, Hab said.
“To protect myself, I had to hide my identity and use my mother’s family name,” he said. “We were threatened all the time and forced to eat food that we as Muslims were not supposed to eat.”
He paused for a moment and continued: “I don’t feel we got justice from the court. The trial took so many years and less and less Khmer Rouge leaders are still alive. We never received any compensation or a chance to heal our wounds.”
Chea was already 92-years-old when the ECCC found him and Samphan guilty of genocide against Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese, two minority groups that have lived in Cambodia for generations. It was the ECCC’s first genocide conviction; many Cambodians believe it will also be the last.
The two trials against Chea and Samphan, known as case 002/01 and 002/02, were widely criticised by the public as well as by experts. A few years ago, judicial researchers from the East West Centre, Asian International Justice Initiative and Stanford University published a damning report about the first trial against the Khmer Rouge leaders, calling the trial process in case 002/01 contentious and confusing.
“The Case 002/01 judgment fails to deliver the most fundamental output one expects from a criminal trial—systematic application of the elements of crimes to a well-document body of factual findings,” the experts wrote.
Chea himself was also far from happy with the trial. Although he often stayed silent during the hearings, he and his defence team repeatedly called the judges “biased” and “incompetent.”
During the trial, Brother No. 2 denied the charges and tried to put all the blame on others, largely on enemies within neighbouring Vietnam. “My position in the revolution was to serve the interests of the nation and people,” an unrepentant Chea once said in the courtroom.
Long Dany, the director of the Veal Veng Reconciliation Centre, part of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DcCaM), said that much was still unknown about Brother No. 2.
“I think he was hiding a lot. He never told the truth about what happened and what he thought. He always blamed Vietnam but in 1979 the Vietnamese thought they could cooperate with him. He stayed over one year in Vietnam and the Vietnamese leaders believed in him, but Nuon Chea never told us why.”
The Khmer Rouge had ethnic Vietnamese killed because of their ethnicity. “The Vietnamese were accused of being spies but most times they were just farmers”, said Dany, who spent a long time researching the atrocities against the Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge.
Dany said that many of the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia often fear to share their experience and still have the feeling that they are victims. “They don’t worry too much about politics or about the Khmer Rouge, but they live in poor conditions and are often stateless, so they have many new concerns,” he said.
Despite the criticism and the disappointment, Chea’s conviction is still meaningful, So Farina, the director of the Centre for Gender & Ethnic Studies with DcCam, said.
“Perpetrators like him never reveal the whole truth. He always presented himself as a patriot and as a nationalist, but as a nationalist you don’t kill your own people”, Farina said. “But there has been some sense of closure. And even now that he died his legacy is still there and it’s a bad legacy. That bad legacy remains.”
Farina spent a long time researching crimes against the Cham Muslims by the Khmer Rouge. “For many Cham Muslims, they believe he served life in prison, because he stayed there until he died,” she said.
Phil Robertson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called for the prosecution of more Khmer Rouge leaders. “While no one should doubt the importance of prosecuting Nuon Chea for his crimes, justice for Khmer Rouge atrocities should not have ended with the conviction of a handful of leaders,” Robertson said.
Many questions still remain and that is why Farina and Dany believe that research on the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge should continue.
“We need to unbury the past. Because there’s still a lot of things that we need to know,” Dany said.
“Some Khmer Rouge cadres have never told what happened, so we need to go out there and interview them. That way we can teach our children the real history.”
But with Chea’s death it’s likely that some questions will never be answered. The man who often wore dark sunglasses in court will no longer take his place in the dock. Now, all that is left is for 88-year-old Khieu Samphan to attend his appeal hearings in case 002/02.
From Koh Kong, the seaside province in southwestern Cambodia, Dul Hab said that he knew nothing about Chea and the other Khmer Rouge leaders until the start of their trials.
“We only knew the leader in our area. We didn’t care who was leading the Khmer Rouge,” he recalled. “We only thought about how to survive.” UCAN