On Thursday, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia the verdict against the last surviving leader of the terrorist regime for genocide upheld. The court dismissed the appeal of Khieu Samphan, 91, doing its job. But the trauma will remain in the country for a long time.
If you walk through Phnom Penh today, you will experience a city where skyscrapers grow up on crumbling sidewalks. It is still evident on every corner that the Stone Age communists depopulated the entire city in 1975 in order to implement their vision of an agricultural state. At least 1.5 million people were maltreated, tortured and starved to death. A school building was converted into a torture prison by the Khmer Rouge, today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located there. Tourists can now walk from one former classroom to another and listen through headphones to tales of atrocities that ended only 43 years ago when an invasion from Vietnam ended.
According to AFP, people from all over Cambodia came to Phnom Penh in buses on Thursday to follow the latest procedure. Khieu Samphan sat in a wheelchair, wore a face mask and followed the session on headphones. In the end, the UN-backed tribunal upheld the life sentence that Khieu Samphan had been sentenced to in 2018 for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. $337 million was spent over 16 years just to convict three men, which seems disproportionate.
Pol Pot, the head of the Khmer Rouge, escaped justice
Khieu Samphan had been the nominal head of state of the Khmer Rouge, educated and cultured. He insisted before the tribunal that he was "unaware of the heinous acts committed by other leaders". Not only did the court find that unbelievable. "I will die knowing that I stand alone before you. I am judged more symbolically than according to my actual actions as an individual," Khieu Samphan said at the verdict a year ago.
Thursday's confirmation is actually more symbolic. Khieu Samphan is already serving another life sentence for a 2014 conviction for crimes against humanity. Co-defendant Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's number two, was convicted twice and received the same sentence. He died in 2019 at the age of 93.
The only other convict was Kaing Guek Eav, known as "Duch", commander of Tuol Sleng. He was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder and torture in 2010 and died in prison in 2020 at the age of 77. Pol Pot, the head of the Khmer Rouge, escaped justice. He died in the Cambodian jungle in 1998 while the remnants of his movement were fighting their last battles in a guerrilla war. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, was himself a member of the Khmer Rouge before he defected. He hindered further prosecutions because he feared unrest.
Today, three-quarters of Cambodia's population is under the age of 30
Most observers saw the benefit of the tribunal in preserving memory anyway. After the end of active work, the court will put its archives in order and disseminate information about its work for educational purposes. Just like the thousands of photos of the victims that Tuol Sleng wants to protect from fading. Most of the women and men on it are anonymous to this day. Their corpses were thrown into mass graves in the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all documents before cutting the throats of the last detainees and fleeing. Today, three-quarters of Cambodia's population is under the age of 30. The children and grandchildren are happy to dismiss the stories of the survivors as exaggerated and impossible.
Leaving Tuol Sleng, you meet two of the seven survivors. They were only spared because they had jobs that were needed in the torture prison, painters, carpenters, electricians. Chum Mey was a mechanic, after 12 days of torture he was ordered to repair typewriters used to write down torture confessions. The Khmer Rouge killed his wife and four children. Now Chum Mey waits for visitors every day to tell them his life story and take a selfie. The horror never let go of him. Khieu Samphan, who was only arrested in 2007, was returned to the purpose-built prison on the court's latest order.