Hanging above the violet-robed men and women is an image of an ancient judge. He is dressed in the traditional formal attire of an Angkor official, seated cross-legged on a dais, sword in hand.
The emblem hangs in the courtroom alongside the UN’s blue and white and Cambodia’s blue and red. The judges, lawyers and court staff work behind glass, stage-like, in a large, darkened auditorium.
This is the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – a quasi-national and international tribunal established in 2003 to bring to justice the puppet masters of Pol Pot’s genocide.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is located thirty minutes outside the center of the capital, far from the construction, the tall buildings and the bustle. You drive past the airport and continue out a ways, until you reach a nondescript guard post. There you turn and drive down a dirt road lined with trees till you reach the stand alone buildings of the court.
Anyone can attend the hearings. 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.
Everyday men and women from the countryside are bused in to watch the halting steps of justice. Mainly older women fill the seats of the auditorium – women with shaved heads, sarongs, white cotton shirts and checkered karma; women who do not see many foreigners and who smile and nod at me and squeeze my arms; grandmothers and mothers who would have been young women during Pol Pot’s regime.
In the thirty-four years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge only a single perpetrator has been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. That man 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 eighty year old grandmothers, ultimately condemning over twelve thousand people to death.
After hiding for 21 years, Duch was discovered by a photo-journalist 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.
We are now deep into trial 002. Thirty-four years later. Three men stand accused: Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. Originally there was also one woman – Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith, originally 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 visit the trial, the prosecution was in the midst of presenting documentary evidence against the three men.
TV screens project close ups of the lawyers and speakers project the proceedings into the auditorium in Khmer. As one of four foreigners, I am given a headset that translates into English and French.
The process is slow, slightly stiff. The lawyers read from a six-inch-thick binder, referencing previously presented evidence and citing numbered documents.
The prosecution plays a video interview with Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two, who was 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 is absent from the courtroom. 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.
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.
In the courtroom the morning session is adjourned. In the auditorium we rise. The judges file out of the room.
Off to the side Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are helped to their feet. They have been sitting silently the whole time, off to the side, behind their lawyers. They are small men now. They are wrinkled and sunken-eyed – disturbingly easy to overlook in the grandeur of the courtroom.
A guard helps them each to their feet and, as they are led haltingly away, a white curtain slides across the glass of the courtroom – hiding it all from view.