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The killers of my maternal grandmother’s cousin are still alive and kicking, living just a walk away from most of grandma’s relatives. On November 16, 2018, 39 years after the Vietnamese forced them out of power, two Khmer Rouge senior leaders, Nuon Chea, aka Brother Number 2, and Khieu Samphan, its head of state, were sentenced to life imprisonment by the UN-backed tribunal for genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese minorities during their reign of terror.
Chea, who is already 92, and Samphan, 87, pleaded not guilty and are already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity from previous verdicts. The new verdict for Nuon Chea also includes crimes committed at S-21, the Khmer Rouge’s notorious prison where more than 20,000 people were tortured and killed; among them were two of my maternal great-uncles.
Prosecuting the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders was never even talked about until Prime Minister Hun Sen forced it. The Khmer Rouge were never mentioned in the Paris Peace Accords, which gave the UN authority over Cambodia. Furthermore, the regime still retained Cambodia’s seat at the UN until 1982 even when it became clear that it had committed mass atrocities. During its occupation, the UN had never attempted to capture a single Khmer Rouge leader and end the civil war. Even by 1997, there were still parts of Cambodia that were not safe to travel because of Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
After a lengthy negotiation which started at the request of the Cambodian government in 1997, on June 6, 2003, the UN and the Cambodian government signed an agreement to set up trial proceedings against the Khmer Rouge senior leaders.
To start, the tribunal, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was problematic. It was set up as a mixed UN-Cambodian court, where every international judge and prosecutor was paired with a Khmer counterpart. Once again, the court was set up to try the Khmer Rouge senior leaders, those responsible for the worst crimes committed. In that sense, the killers of grandma’s cousin are nonentities, not even worth mentioning. But then there is Im Chaem, who oversaw the killing of tens of thousands of people as a Khmer Rouge mid-level official in the northwestern zone from 1977 to 1978. In 2015, the tribunal charged her with crimes against humanity, including mass murder, extermination, and enslavement. But in February of 2017, the tribunal’s judges dropped the charges against her.
The Cambodian government has always fought any efforts to prosecute anyone beyond the Khmer Rouge senior leaders. Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadet, often warned that more trials would potentially lead to civil war and chaos. The case of Im Chaem is not an isolated one. Meas Muth, the Khmer Rouge naval chief, was charged with genocide of the Vietnamese minority, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and homicide. The charges against him are likely to be dropped as well.
After the sentencing of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the Cambodian government declared that there are no more Khmer Rouge leaders left to stand trial and that the process has ended. Fifteen years and nearly $300 million later, the tribunal convicted three men, the third one being Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, who ran S-21. Two other defendants, Pol Pot’s sister-in-law, Ieng Thirith, and her husband, Ieng Sary, died of old age during the trial.Published in