Thirty-one years after the darkest era in Cambodian history, the surviving leaders of the communist Khmer Rouge movement were indicted on Thursday, Sept. 16, for the deaths of nearly 2 million people. In an order signed at midnight, judges at a tribunal specially convened to investigate and try the crimes of the Democratic Kampuchea government, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, ordered that four aging suspects stand trial for what the court deemed was "an attack on the entire population of Cambodia."
The indictments bring charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and, under Cambodian law, murder, torture and religious persecution. Investigators estimate that as many as 800,000 deaths across Cambodia were violent just under a third of the regime's alleged victims, but roughly as many people as were killed during the entire Rwandan genocide in 1994. The majority of those killed by the regime succumbed to starvation, disease and overwork as the government set out to transform Cambodian society and destroy its supposed oppressor classes.
"Some commentators have said, and I believe they were correct, that this matter is the most complex since the Nuremberg tribunal," Judge Marcel Lemonde of France, who also announced his resignation after a tumultuous four years, told reporters gathered at the U.N.-backed court on Thursday. A trial is expected in the first half of next year.
The four accused are former revolutionaries who seized power in 1975 at the end of a civil war with a U.S. client regime. Foremost among them is Nuon Chea, 84, known as Brother No. 2, the Communist Party's deputy secretary and a member of the inner circle who created the Khmer Rouge's policies of execution. He is joined by the former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 84, a public champion of the Khmer Rouge campaign to root out supposed political enemies, and his wife Ieng Thirith, 78, a former Minister of Social Action. The regime's head of state, Khieu Samphan, 79, who chaired the party's central committee as it planned the deadliest of its purges of government officials, is also to stand trial.
The court's two co-investigating judges dropped the charges against Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who in July was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the murders of an estimated 14,000 people in his role as commander of the Khmer Rouge secret police. Judges said that in the investigation that concluded Thursday, they had uncovered no new evidence concerning Duch.
The investigation came to an end in raucous fashion. In addressing the media, Judge Lemonde and his Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, congratulated each other for what they considered personal and professional triumphs. But in the course of three years of inquiry, the two publicly disagreed more than once over politically charged matters, provoking outrage among international judges and the defense, which repeatedly sought the investigating judges' disqualification and removal. In a minority opinion last week, two pretrial judges wrote that the investigating judges had "repeatedly refused to take action on defense claims of government interference in the investigation and that fair trials may now be less likely as a result."
Though three Cambodian judges disagreed with that opinion, essentially taking a pro-government position and meaning that the court's Pre-Trial Chamber could not rule, Judges Catherine Marchi-Uhel of France and Rowan Downing of Australia found in their impassioned opinion that there was "reason to believe the Cambodian government had illegally acted to deny the court necessary witness testimony." Government officials last year, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, publicly instructed six senior members of the ruling party not to testify during the investigation.
Lemonde was also publicly attacked last year by some of his own investigators, one of whom swore in an affidavit that the judge had given instructions to favor the prosecution, a charge the judge has denied in court papers. "It was not always easy. It was even sometimes particularly trying on a personal level, I would say," Lemonde told reporters. "But we have done it, and it's obviously today a great satisfaction."