About 160 victims taking part in the case against senior Khmer Rouge regime leaders gathered at the killing fields of Choeung Ek yesterday to commemorate those who died during the Pol Pot years and share their hopes of finally seeing justice.
Substantive hearings start today at the war crimes tribunal in the landmark trial against Khmer Rouge Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary.
But the regime’s Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith, who suffers from dementia, will not be sitting alongside her former cohorts because judges last week declared her unfit for trial.
After a Buddhist ceremony at Choeung Ek, participants taking part in the event were asked by a reporter if civil parties to the trial agreed with the judges’ decision to release Ieng Thirith. A group of about 100, mostly civil parties, immediately started to shout their disapproval.
Sum Rithy, a former prisoner under the Khmer Rouge regime, said that he spoke for all 160 victims who were present when he said that they disagreed with the release. “Before judges decide to release Ieng Thirith, they should look at how many millions of victims were killed during the regime,” he said.
Another victim, Heng Bunneth, 46, from Kandal province, was also deeply unhappy about the ruling.
“I and other civil parties want Ieng Thirith to be in detention,” Mr Bunneth said. “If the judges decide she is to be released, civil parties will organize a peaceful demonstration against the decision.”
Tribunal spokesman Huy Vannak said that Ieng Thirith would remain in prison during an appeal filed by prosecutors on Friday against her release.
“The Supreme [Court] Chamber has up to 15 days to make a decision on the appeal by prosecutors,” Mr Vannak said.
Thun Saray, president of local human rights group Adhoc, said that the rights of sick people, including Ieng Thirith, had to be respected. “Because they do not have the ability to stand trial we cannot force them to do that,” Mr Saray said. “It’s inhumane.”
But he added that her inability to stand trial needed to be “double-checked” because victims still doubted the accuracy of the medical exams she was given by court-appointed experts.
During yesterday’s ceremony, the 160 civil parties, who had dressed in white—the color of mourning—offered flowers and incense to five monks sitting in front of a stupa filled with skulls. Some of them fought back tears while telling their stories as members of the audience wiped their eyes and shielded themselves from the sun.
Mr Rithy, who was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge in Siem Reap province, used gestures to show how he was beaten and scalded with hot water.
“I have been waiting about 30 years,” he said. “I ask all the souls of people killed here and nationwide to help this court find real justice for the victims who died.”
The eight organizers of the event, including local rights group Adhoc, Ksem Ksam Victims’ Association and the Cambodian Defenders Project, called for victims to be given a greater voice at court.
“We urge the importance of Civil Party participation throughout Case 002 proceedings,” they said in a joint statement, which noted disappointment that civil party co-lead lawyers were denied their request to present remarks during today’s opening statements at the tribunal. The organizations also warned about the impact of splitting the complex trial into smaller mini-trials.
“Only a small number of Civil Parties [are] directly involved in the first trial, and it remains to be seen if the Chamber adheres to its promise of letting victims participate in a consolidated group,” the groups said in the statement.
The first mini-trial will examine the forced movement of people and related crimes against humanity. Trials on other crimes, including genocide, and topics like execution sites and cooperatives, will follow later.
The organizing groups also said they were concerned that the severance of the case file created uncertainty over how reparations would be given to the victims.
Pen Soeun, 56, from Svay Rieng province, stressed the importance that civil parties place on receiving compensation.
“If civil parties do not receive reparations from the tribunal, what does it mean for the justice of the victims?” he asked.
Fears were also raised about the length of the court process as the defendants and the victims alike grow old.
Chum Mey, one of the few people to survive the Khmer Rouge S-21 prison, urged the court to finish its work quickly before potential witnesses die.
“Our concern is that fellow citizens and victims will die without seeing the light of justice,” Mr Mey said.