Khmer Rouge tribunal prosecutors have long said their door is open to victims, but that call has gone largely unanswered. Of the millions of people who suffered under the Khmer Rouge only about 10 have come forward so far, William Smith, one of the court’s deputy co-prosecutors, said in an interview last week.
“The doors are open,” Smith said. “Anyone can take a tuk-tuk or moto or catch a bus. The prosecutors office will take a complaint.”
Victims and victim advocates say it has been difficult, both logistically and emotionally, to make themselves heard. The tribunal has yet to establish a formal registration procedure for victims, and many remain mystified as to how exactly they can get involved.
In fact, anyone who wants prosecutors to investigate a crime or who wants to sign on as a civil party can call, write, or go directly to the headquarters of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Smith said. (See box on page 4 for contact information.)
He encouraged people to make appointments to discuss their cases with court officials, but said that anyone who just shows up at the front gate will be admitted, as long as they have identification—and patience. Getting through security at the front gate can be time-consuming.
The prosecutors and co-investigating judges, he said, “strongly encourage victims and witnesses to the crimes committed by members of the Democratic Kampuchea regime to participate in the judicial proceedings.”
Many factors may have contributed to the muted public participation thus far: inadequate outreach, the court’s remote location, the prolonged debate over the court’s procedural rules, lingering fear, and the numbing passage of time among them.
And the clock is ticking for victims. By early next year, the first trial may already have begun, and once a trial starts, victims can no longer sign on as civil parties.
For now, the Victims Unit, which was conceived in June, has neither staff nor funding. The tribunal is actively recruiting for the Victims Unit, but no Cambodians have yet applied for the head of unit position, said Peter Foster, the tribunal’s UN public affairs officer. Interviews for an international deputy head of unit are ongoing, he added.
Foster said that a fundraising appeal for the Victims Unit, among other things, would be launched in October. Once funds are secured, he said the unit could be up and running “within a few months.”
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Foster conceded.
He added that he has not been in touch with any victims who want to file a claim with the court, and said he was unsure of the proper procedure for registration. He referred further questions to the court’s Web site.
Until the Victims Unit is up and running, Smith said victims can get involved in two ways. First, they can provide information to prosecutors about crimes they want investigated, and second, they can sign on as civil parties.
“Either the Co-Prosecutors Office or the Co-Investigative Judges Office will arrange entrance to the Court for the victim or witness without needing to reveal who they are or the purpose of their visit, and will arrange for them to leave discreetly as well,” Smith said by e-mail Tuesday.
He added that victims should bring identification with them, so the court can verify the victim’s name, age and address, he said, adding that prosecutors would keep such details in strictest confidence.
“The interview or application procedure is flexible and as informal as possible to ensure a supportive atmosphere to ensure that the victim’s needs are met,” he wrote.
Generally, he said, two representatives from the office of the Co-Prosecutors or Co-Investigating Judges offices will take a victim or witness statement. Those interviews will be recorded, he said. Lawyers are not required, but people can bring a lawyer with them if they want.
Victim complaints won’t necessarily result in criminal prosecution. The ECCC can only consider cases against top leaders and those most responsible for serious crimes committed between April 17, 1975 and Jan 6, 1979.
But Smith added that most people in Cambodia would qualify as civil parties.
“Most people were victims in one way or another. It’s not just a physical injury, it’s a psychological injury as well,” he said.
Victims who do sign on as civil parties will have powers that are, by international standards, extraordinary. On paper, the ECCC gives victims more power than just about any other international criminal tribunal in history, and Smith said that as civil parties, victims could serve as an important check on the actions of the court.
“Victims provide a watchdog on the actions of prosecutors and co-investigating judges to make sure we do our job,” he said.
As civil parties, victims can ask the court to investigate specific crimes. If they disagree with certain decisions made by the court’s co-investigating judges, they can make an appeal to the Pre-Trial Chamber. And they can access the confidential files relevant to their case, Smith said.
Victims also have the right to an attorney, and if funding comes through, the Victims Unit may be able to help with legal fees. Civil parties also have the right to any necessary protective measures.
Civil parties can seek “collective and moral” reparations, and Smith said victims would play a role in determining exactly what those reparations might be. He added that even if the guilty don’t have any money, donors might set up a fund for reparations.
Civil parties can also publish the names of those responsible for the crimes committed against them.
“There have been growing pains to make this happen, but it is happening,” Smith said. “This next two or three months is quite critical in making it not just legal that victims and witnesses come forward, but making it absolutely accessible.”