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Cambodia: 30 Years After Fall of the Khmer Rouge, Justice Still Elusive

Anniversary Highlights Stalled Trials for Some of 20th Century’s Worst Killers

(New York) - Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's culture of impunity remains as strong as ever, Human Rights Watch said today. Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Cambodian government continues to obstruct the United Nations-supported court created to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders and others most responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people during the Khmer Rouge-era.

Despite more than three years of operations and the expenditure of approximately US$50 million, the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia established to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable have held no trials.

"After 30 years, no one has been tried, convicted or sentenced for the crimes of one of the bloodiest regimes of the 20th century," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is no accident. For more than a decade, China and the United States blocked efforts at accountability, and for the past decade Hun Sen has done his best to thwart justice."

The Extraordinary Chambers have been deeply flawed in both design and practice. UN reports have concluded that the Cambodian judiciary lacks independence, competence and professionalism. Yet at the insistence of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, the Extraordinary Chambers were established with a majority of Cambodian judges and a Cambodian "co-prosecutor" and "co-investigating judge." The United Nations opposed that structure.

Prosecutors and investigating judges have conducted only limited field investigations. The Extraordinary Chambers have also been mired in allegations of corruption among its Cambodian personnel, with charges of job-selling and bribery.

Five Khmer Rouge leaders whom Hun Sen has allowed to be arrested are in detention, but no other cases have been filed against the many persons implicated in horrific crimes during Khmer Rouge rule. Human Rights Watch has called for broadening the scope of investigations beyond the five already charged.

Today, the Extraordinary Chambers published a statement in which the Cambodian co-prosecutor opposed filing additional cases. The international co-prosecutor rightly asserted in his filing with the Extraordinary Chambers that the charges fall within the court's jurisdiction and "would lead to a more comprehensive accounting of the crimes that were committed." Yet for political and policy reasons, the Cambodian co-prosecutor has opposed bringing more cases, citing "Cambodia's past instability and the continued need for national reconciliation."

"No serious observer believes there is any threat to Cambodia's stability if additional cases are filed against alleged Khmer Rouge killers," said Adams. "On the 30th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's fall from power, the Cambodian government is playing games. This is a transparently political attempt to stop the court from doing its work."

The Khmer Rouge came to power at the end of the United States' war in Indochina. Led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge was in power from April 17, 1975 to January 7, 1979. Estimates suggest that as many as 2 million of Cambodia's 8 million people were killed or died from disease, starvation, or forced labor during this period.

After the Khmer Rouge carried out numerous cross-border attacks on Vietnam in which hundreds of villagers were massacred, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. It pushed the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. The Khmer Rouge retreated to the Thai border, where it received support from Thailand, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore and others for the next decade.

To force the Vietnamese army out of Cambodia, the US then led a broad international embargo on Cambodia, depriving a population that had survived inconceivable violence, deprivation, and hardship of the assistance necessary to rebuild their health and their country.

Throughout the 1980s the Khmer Rouge conducted a violent insurgency in which tens of thousands died. For geopolitical reasons, discussions of holding the Khmer Rouge leadership accountable for their crimes while in power were blocked, principally by the US and China.

At China's insistence, the Khmer Rouge was included as a party to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which led to creation of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the UN's largest peacekeeping effort up to that time, and national elections to form a new government. The Khmer Rouge withdrew from the peacekeeping force, but the elections went ahead without it. China pledged to withdraw support from the Khmer Rouge thereafter, which it apparently did. But elements in the Thai army continued to support the Khmer Rouge and deaths and injuries, many from landmines, mounted.

The Khmer Rouge movement fractured publicly in 1996 with the amnesty granted to Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, by the Cambodian government. The movement effectively collapsed after the death of Pol Pot in 1998 and the defection to the Cambodian government of other top leaders, including Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, and thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

In 1997, Hun Sen and his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, sent a letter to the UN secretary-general at the time, Kofi Annan, asking for an international tribunal to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable. This effort was blocked by China, which made it clear that it would veto any UN Security Council resolution to create such a court, and by Hun Sen, who with the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, lost interest in holding its leaders accountable. Instead, Hun Sen invited Khmer Rouge leaders who defected to his government to his home, toasted them with champagne, and called for Cambodians to "bury the past."

"Hun Sen has spent most of the past 10 years trying to undermine UN efforts to establish a credible tribunal, miring it in delay and fights over jurisdiction," said Adams. "Now he is trying to stop a few more cases from being filed."

Human Rights Watch said that the impunity enjoyed by the Khmer Rouge has been matched in the post-Khmer Rouge era. The Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea, in power from 1979 until 1993, routinely violated the fundamental rights of Cambodians. During the UNTAC period in the early 1990s, the United Nations recorded hundreds of killings and attacks by forces under the control of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.

On March 30, 1997, a grenade attack on an opposition political rally killed at least 16 people and wounded approximately 150. Hun Sen's bodyguard unit has been implicated in the attack. In July 1997, Hun Sen staged a coup against his royalist coalition partners in which more than 100 opposition figures were extrajudically killed. In the 1998 elections, dozens more were killed. In the past decade, many opposition politicians, journalists, labor leaders and human rights activists have been killed or attacked. No perpetrator has been held accountable, in spite of the availability of evidence in many of these cases.

"Whether it is for Khmer Rouge crimes or those of more recent times, brutal, well-known perpetrators remain free men," said Adams. "Sadly, impunity remains almost complete in Cambodia."

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