Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Tribunal to Hear Closing Arguments

ANLONG VENG, Cambodia—Three years after indicting four senior Khmer Rouge leaders for allegedly directing one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, a United Nations-backed tribunal will start hearing closing arguments Wednesday in a closely watched trial.

But only two defendants remain. A third accused died this year, while another was released last year on medical grounds. After prosecutors and defense lawyers sum up their cases this month, judges could issue a verdict late next year and appeals would likely stretch into 2015.

The current trial is just one of several planned, meaning the two defendants—already in their 80s—could die before the process is completed.

Such an outcome would mark a discomfiting end to a legal accounting once hailed by Cambodians and foreign donors as a historic platform for the country to bury its tragic past, re-establish rule of law and fulfill its promising economic potential. But amid funding shortfalls and perceived political interference, trial monitors and victims worry that the court itself is living on borrowed time.

There seems to be a “lack of political will to pursue further prosecutions, and the government keeps failing to keep its commitments to fund the national side of the court,” said Juliette Rousselot, a consultant at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “There is a real danger we might not even see [the current case] completed.”

At least 1.7 million people—a fifth of Cambodia’s population at the time—died of starvation, disease, overwork or execution under the Khmer Rouge, a radical Marxist movement that ruled from 1975 to 1979. The group tried to create an agricultural utopia, killing many educated citizens and forcing urban residents to relocate to rural collectives, many of which failed.

Nuon Chea, 87 years old, chief ideologue and deputy to leader Pol Pot, who himself died uncaptured in 1998, and Khieu Samphan, 82, the former head of state, are the only senior leaders left standing trial, facing charges of crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes—allegations they deny.

The current trial involves charges related mainly to mass eviction of urbanites, and the tribunal hopes to start a second trial—which would include genocide charges—against them once closing arguments end for the first. But it isn’t clear if the court can raise the required funds, and there are questions over whether more suspects should be prosecuted, something rights advocates urge.

Prosecutors have investigated five more suspects (one, a former air force chief, died in June), but the tribunal hasn’t decided whether to indict them, the court’s public records indicate. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer who defected in 1977, and other government officials have warned that further prosecutions could upset reconciliation with former guerrillas and trigger conflict, though some independent Cambodian political analysts consider the latter unlikely.

Today, most ex-Khmer Rouge fighters live as farmers, small-time merchants, shopkeepers or even soldiers in Cambodia’s military. Many reside in the northwestern provinces where they fought as guerrillas for nearly two decades before surrendering in the late 1990s.

Among them is Im Chaem, 70, who retired last year as deputy commune chief. Today, she and her family tend a one-hectare farm in Anlong Veng, a remote district. Nearly four decades ago, as a top regional official, she allegedly oversaw the deaths of thousands of Cambodians through purges and forced labor, according to prosecutor documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

In an interview, Ms. Im Chaem confirmed she was a district secretary but denied wrongdoing. She hasn’t been charged with any crime. “I just followed orders and led my group. I didn’t do anything else,” she said.

“There was so much suffering in the past, and I’m glad we’re at peace now,” Ms. Im Chaem said. “I just want to keep my farm, feed my family and live out the rest of my life.”

She may get her wish, trial monitors say, given the government’s resistance toward further prosecutions and the tribunal’s financial straits. Cambodian workers at the tribunal—which comprises separately funded local and international arms—have twice this year gone on strike to protest unpaid salaries. The Cambodian government is responsible for financing the court’s domestic division.

For its part, Cambodia—which put in $8.7 million in cash, or 5% of total cash donations, as of July—says it can’t add to its contributions “without jeopardizing the country’s judicial reform program,” government spokesman Ek Tha said. International donors—including Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Germany—have underwritten most of the court’s costs of $209 million since its launch in 2006, but some are weary of a judicial process originally envisaged to last about five years. Its one conviction came in 2010, when former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav was found guilty of committing crimes against humanity, a conviction for which he is serving a life sentence.

“A gradual and prudent restructuring of the court is necessary,” said Andrew Cayley, international co-prosecutor from December 2009 to September 2013.

The tribunal has lost two defendants. Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister, died in March aged 87, while his wife, Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, 81, was released last year after being deemed unfit for trial due to severe dementia.

“While delays are frustrating, they should be weighed against the nature of the crimes be prosecuted, including their magnitude and complexity, and the due process protections being afforded the defendants,” said David Scheffer, U.N. adviser to the tribunal. The current trial’s duration is comparable to other international proceedings, court officials say.

Many Cambodians, particularly youth born after the Khmer Rouge era, are trying to look past the country’s history.

“My priorities are my family and my job—I have 11 siblings and I need to look after them,” said Seang Veasna, an 18-year-old auto-rickshaw driver whose grandfather was killed by the Khmer Rouge. “People from that generation want justice, and I do feel sympathetic. But it’s not that important for young people.”