It is a discreet, almost shameful ending. On September 22, in Phnom Penh, the Extraordinary Chambers of Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) issued their latest verdict amid general indifference. The judges of this single tribunal, set up with the support of the United Nations in 2007 to try those responsible for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, rejected Khieu Samphan’s appeal, sentenced to life imprisonment. At 91, the former president of Democratic Kampuchea, a Maoist-inspired genocidal regime, is the last of the defendants still alive. The special court, with its hundreds of Cambodian and foreign employees, its procession of lawyers, employees, translators, will pack their bags when it has completed its mission to archive its work.
For what balance? Over fifteen years, the ECCC spent an estimated $ 337 million (€ 339 million) to try five people and convict three. In addition to Khieu Samphan, the special court sentenced Nuon Chea, the former ideologue of the Khmer Rouge regime, who died behind bars in 2019 to life in prison. Kaing Guek Eav, aka “Douch”, the former head of the sinister S21 prison, where thousands of people were tortured and executed, was also sentenced to life in prison in 2012, before dying eight years later. Ieng Sary, the former chief of diplomacy of the genocidal regime, died during the trial in 2013; His wife, Ieng Thirith, former Minister of Social Affairs, suffering from senile dementia, was declared ineligible for trial and was released in 2012.
The hopes born of the creation of these chambers, however, were immense, like the crimes committed during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. This dark period, during which 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives, was not even addressed in school curricula. Pol Pot, the “number one brother” leading the Khmer Rouge regime, died in the jungle in 1998. His subordinates rallied one after another to Prime Minister Hun Sen and conducted a peaceful retreat. Abroad jurists and historians have debated on the semantics of tragedy. Was it a genocide, when the executioners, like most of the victims, were Cambodians? Should we speak of “autogenocide”, at the risk of amalgamating criminals and victims?
The end of impunity
In this regard, the ECCC’s assessment is certainly positive. The trial of Douch, the former boss of the S21 prison, was the occasion of a real catharsis. The defendant’s attitude confused the victims: after having repeatedly apologized, Douch, on the last day of the trial in the first instance, asked, against all odds, to be acquitted. However, his years of collaboration with international justice have allowed him to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the functioning of the terrible detention center he runs.
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