March 30, 2009 / 9:19 AM / 10 years ago

Q+A: Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Pol Pot’s chief torturer took the stand on Monday, charged with crimes against humanity in the first trial of a top Khmer Rouge cadre 30 years after the end of a regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia.

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity while chief of the S-21 torture center, where more than 14,000 died during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era.

Below are some questions and answers about the tribunal:


Cambodia asked the United Nations and the international community to help set up a tribunal more than a decade ago, but the government sought to retain control of the court. The plan languished for years, with draft laws flying back and forth.

The U.N. gave the go-ahead for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the joint tribunal is known, in 2005.

The trial, originally expected to cost around $20 million a year over three years, was delayed by bail hearings, appeals and pre-trial machinations. The tribunal has asked donors for a $143 million budget to run until 2010, and raised about $100 million so far.


Conducted under a modified form of Cambodia’s French-based judicial system, Cambodian and foreign judges and prosecutors will work together and try to reach unanimous decisions. If they cannot all agree, then a decision requires a “super-majority.”

The Trial Chamber of three Cambodian and two foreign judges requires four to agree on a verdict. The seven-judge Supreme Court Chamber — comprising four Cambodians and three foreigners handling appeals — must have five judges in agreement.

Sentences can range from a minimum five years to a maximum of life in prison. There is no death penalty in Cambodia. The court can also seize money or property acquired unlawfully.

Advocates hope the tribunal will serve as a model of professionalism for the country’s judiciary. But critics say its integrity is already threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference, which the government has denied.


Duch is among five aging and infirm senior cadres facing various charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A verdict in his trial is expected in September.

Trial dates have not been set for ex-president Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, and “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea.

Pol Pot died in 1998 and there are fears that his surviving allies will die of old age before they face trial.


Cambodia’s prosecutor opposed a bid by her foreign counterpart to go after six more suspects, citing the need for national reconciliation. Critics saw a political move to stop the court from digging too deep and perhaps unearthing secrets about some former Khmer Rouge figures in the government.

The government denies meddling and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has said he supports the tribunal. There is no evidence linking him to any atrocities.

More broadly, some critics say the role of the United States and China in supporting Pol Pot’s regime should also be probed.

The court says it can only try individuals for crimes committed in Cambodia between April 17, 1975 and January 6, 1979, and cannot try countries or organizations.


Survivors and other civil parties will be allowed to ask questions and file motions through their lawyers.

Survivors hope the trials will bring closure to their grief, and mark a new era of peace and justice. They also hope it will educate young Cambodians about an era they know little about.

More than half the country’s 14 million people were born after Pol Pot was ousted in 1979.

Despite an education campaign, a pre-trial survey found 85 percent of respondents “had little or no knowledge” of the tribunal, although court officials disputed its findings.

Reporting by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Sugita Katyal

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