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Justice delayed is pondered in Cambodia

Saturday - 8/2/2014, 7:50am  ET

In this July 28, 2014, photo, Phan Phon, 67, is a caretaker at a Buddhist pagoda, working in the rice fields during the Khmer Rouge regime. "If there is no trial, no justice, then the souls of dead people from the Khmer Rouge regime will not rest in peace. But, if the court judges the former Khmer Rouge leaders guilty, I hope their souls will be happy and they can be reborn with a new life," Phan Phon said. A U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal will deliver a verdict this coming Thursday in the trial of the two top leaders of the communist Khmer Rouge, whose extremist policies in the late 1970s are blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians though starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

SOPHENG CHEANG
Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- A U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal will deliver a verdict this coming Thursday in the trial of the two top leaders of the communist Khmer Rouge, whose extremist policies in the late 1970s are blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians though starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution.

Khieu Samphan, 83, the regime's head of state, and Nuon Chea, 88, right-hand man of the group's late leader, Pol Pot, were tried for crimes against humanity. They will face a second trial this year on additional charges of genocide. The tribunal's first trial sent to prison the commander of the group's notorious Tuol Sleng torture center, but the upcoming verdict will mark the first time the Khmer Rouge policymakers will be judged.

What interest do Cambodians have in the prospect of justice finally being rendered, more than three decades after the Khmer Rouge were kicked out of power by an invasion from neighboring Vietnam? Those who lived through the holocaust have good reason to remember, but most Cambodians alive today were not even born when terror reigned.

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SOK SAMBOUR, 25, a hotel receptionist: "One of my uncles was killed because of a very small offense. A pair of his trousers was torn, and he asked my mom to sew it, but the Khmer Rouge found out and accused him of violating their rules, and he was taken away to be killed."

Another two of her relatives also died, she said.

Her parents told her about that era, including exactly how long the Khmer Rouge ruled: three years, eight months and 20 days.

An elderly neighbor told her that just catching a fish to eat was enough to be accused of betrayal and face almost certain execution.

Seeking to learn more, Sok Sambour has visited the museum at the site of the infamous Khmer Rouge S-21 detention center, where an estimated 16,000 men, women and children were tortured before being executed.

"I think the trial and upcoming verdict are small compensation for all those killed and their survivors," she said, wondering if life sentences would satisfy people's hunger for justice.

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NORNG CHAN PHAL, 45, construction vehicle operator: "The legacy I received from the Khmer Rouge is nothing but great sorrow, suffering and a broken family. I cannot describe how much suffering it causes me when I recall how my parents were beaten in front of me."

He and his younger brother were taken with their parents to the notorious Tuol Sleng torture center, and kept as virtual adoptees after the Khmer Rouge killed their parents. Vietnamese troops who stumbled upon the facility in 1979 found five children alive amid a gruesome tableau of death.

Norng Chan Phal has already had the satisfaction of seeing the tribunal send the camp's commander, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to life imprisonment in 2012 in the first trial it held.

He did not realize that Khmer Rouge leaders would face a reckoning in court on Thursday. He has been busy with his work in bustling Phnom Penh, and has already received a measure of justice with Duch's conviction.

"I want the two criminal masterminds to reveal the true story of their regime's policies," he said. "I want to see them saying they are wrongdoers and have committed crimes."

Neither defendant has acknowledged legal responsibility for the Khmer Rouge's atrocities, asserting that Pol Pot exercised virtually sole control, and that the crimes with which they were charged were exaggerated or even committed by Cambodia's traditional enemy, the Vietnamese.

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VEN KIMSORN, 47, a tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh: "The Pol Pot regime was very cruel, a regime that broke up the families of millions of Cambodians, making the survivors suffer forever."

"I cannot forget," said the father of two.

As a young boy, the Khmer Rouge assigned him countryside tasks typical for someone his age: collecting cow dung for fertilizer, and tending a buffalo herd.

But his family came from the city, which marked them as class enemies in Khmer Rouge eyes. When the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17, 1975, they immediately forced virtually all Phnom Penh's inhabitants on a forced march to resettle in the countryside. Ven Kimsorn's family was sent north to Kampong Thom province.

Ven Kimsorn's siblings had another black mark against them: they had served with the government forces that fought against the Khmer Rouge. Three older brothers and one older sister were arrested and never seen again. An uncle also disappeared, presumed dead.

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