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Experts look at Cambodia's Khmer Rouge trial

Thursday - 8/7/2014, 7:30am  ET

In this July 30, 2014 photo, Cambodians line up at a court entrance before a hearing to prepare for the genocide trial of two surviving leaders Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea, at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A U.N.-assisted court on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 will deliver its verdicts in a case against the two most senior surviving leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, charged with crimes against humanity. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- A U.N.-assisted tribunal on Thursday sentenced two top leaders of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge regime to life in prison for crimes against humanity during their late 1970s reign of terror that left as many as 2 million people dead.

The case -- involving the forced relocations of people and a mass execution -- covered just a sliver of the offenses that led to the deaths of so many of their countrymen through starvation, medical neglect, overwork and execution.

The trial of Khieu Samphan, the regime's head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the group's late leader, Pol Pot, began in November 2011 and ended with closing arguments in October 2013. More than 100,000 people attended its 222 sessions.

A second trial of the two is supposed to start by the end of the year, adding charges of genocide to additional counts of crimes against humanity. Five low-ranking Khmer Rouge are under investigation, with a decision on whether to try them expected sometime next year, a move opposed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Before Thursday, the tribunal had concluded one previous case, resulting in the conviction of the commandant of a torture center.

The tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, began its work in 2006 and spent $204.6 million up to the end of last year. Cambodian and international jurists jointly comprise the bench, prosecution and defense teams.

The Associated Press asked legal and academic experts earlier this week to explore questions raised by the proceedings. Their replies have been edited for brevity:

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Q: The Khmer Rouge Trial seems like a very long and expensive process to have convicted only three elderly defendants. Is the expense justified?

HEATHER RYAN, who has monitored the tribunal's work for the Open Society Justice Initiative:

"Justice mechanisms for complex crimes that span an entire country and result in nearly 2 million deaths are inherently time-consuming and expensive. They require exploring extensive evidence and applying detailed principles of international law.

"Nonetheless, the court's record for cost-per-accused is high compared to other hybrid tribunals and to the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. This is primarily because the court has indicted and tried so few people. The complicated procedures of the court also contribute to its relatively high cost.

"Whether, in the end, Cambodians will believe the court was worth the time and the expense is a question that can only be answered in the future by looking at whether the court contributes to a culture that rejects impunity and respects rule of law, and whether Cambodians have a sense that substantial justice for Khmer Rouge atrocities has been delivered."

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Q: A school of thought suggests that a major purpose of the Khmer Rouge tribunal is to establish an accurate record for history's sake. To what extent do you think this has been accomplished?

DAVID CHANDLER, retired professor of history at Australia's Monash University and author of several books on Cambodia:

"I agree with the proposition, but I would be happier with the word 'hope' than with the word 'purpose.' That said, I think one of the most important outcomes of the ECCC so far has been the mass of documentary data that has been assembled relative to the Khmer Rouge era. Tens of thousands of pages -- including court testimony but not limited to statements made in court -- have been assembled in three languages. These pages are permanently accessible to anyone, and they contain masses of material that had not emerged in the printed record before the trial.

"Whether anyone will ever attempt to write an accessible history of the Khmer Rouge era is another question. One prominent scholar ... seems to have abandoned the project. Others will probably be cowed by the mass of data that was available to scholars before the ECCC, principally in the archives of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (which collects archival material on the Khmer Rouge), and by the data accumulated since."

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Q: The surviving Khmer Rouge policymakers have been brought to justice. Why is it important that lower-level Khmer Rouge also be tried?

BRAD ADAMS, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch:

"As many as 2 million people died under the Khmer Rouge. Yet Prime Minister Hun Sen says that the convictions of three people will be enough to provide justice for the Cambodian people. U.N. appointed prosecutors and judges have attempted to prosecute a handful more. But Hun Sen has said that even a few more cases will not be allowed. He has spent years obstructing justice and delaying trials.

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