Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal ends after 16 years but just 3 convictions. Was justice served?

Sieu Sean Do was 12 when Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered his family out of their Phnom Penh home and into the Cambodian jungle, where labor camps, starvation and persecution in the regime’s notorious “killing fields” would ultimately leave 1.7 million dead.

Do witnessed mass killings and torture before his family escaped, eventually moving to the United States. But lasting trauma and a desire to see justice stayed with him.

On Thursday, Cambodia’s 16-year tribunal supported by the United Nations to prosecute leaders of the 1970s regime ended after securing just three convictions at cost of more than $330 million.

For Do and other Cambodian-American survivors, it fell well short of the justice they sought. But some said it still created a vital legal and historical record of the Cambodian genocide.

In this photo from West German television, a Khmer Rouge soldier waves his pistol and orders store owners to abandon their shops in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 17, 1975.

“The tribunal process allowed the survivors to have an opportunity to finally voice what they had gone through,” Do, now 59, told USA TODAY.

The Khmer Rouge in 1975 attempted to create a classless agrarian society, forcing city residents into the country to work in forced labor. Mismanagement led to starvation and disease. The regime targeted teachers, lawyers, doctors and clergy, according to the University of Minnesota’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The Khmer Rouge was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

In Phnom Penh this week, busloads of Cambodians came to watch the final proceedings of a tribunal that had aimed to bring justice, accountability and explanations for the crimes. 

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In its final session, the U.N.-assisted tribunal rejected an appeal by Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975-79. It reaffirmed his life sentence following his 2018 conviction for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The court previously convicted Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s No. 2 leader, and Kaing Guek Eav, who commanded the Tuol Sleng prison, where roughly 16,000 people were tortured before being taken away to be killed. Both have since died.

The tribunal – created in 2006 after many Khmer Rouge officials died, including top leader Pol Pot, who perished in the jungle in 1998 at age 72 while fighting a guerrilla war long after losing power – was long criticized for being slow. 

In this photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Khieu Samphan, the former head of state for the Khmer Rouge, sits in a courtroom on Thursday during a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues who also served as the special expert on U.N. assistance to the tribunal from 2012 to 2018, said the tribunal faced a number of challenges. That included disputes over who could be prosecuted.

Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected when the group was in power and was installed as part of a new government.

While the tribunal fell short of its potential, Scheffer argued it still produced an important measure of justice while helping to expand school education about the Khmer Rouge period.

“Justice has been accomplished. Does that mean that justice for every single death has been achieved, against every perpetrator of death and injury and destruction during the Pol Pot regime… of course not,” he said. 

Do, who lives in San Francisco, said he had “spoken with many angry survivors who shared their disappointment” about the time the tribunal took for so few convictions.

“People are quick to note the tribunal’s flaws, especially political interference. And that was an albatross for the court,” Rutgers University anthropology professor Alexander Hinton, who studies genocide and was in Cambodia for the tribunal’s final hearing, told USA TODAY via email.

He added, “There were too few trials, but the ones that were held were significant and critical to helping Cambodia heal and move forward after one of the worst genocides in history.”

In Long Beach, California, Richer San, 58, a board member of the community group called Cambodia Town, Inc., told USA TODAY he also survived the Khmer Rouge as a young boy. 

“Horrible things happened,” said San, who recalled being forced out of the city at gunpoint. “My generation and older, you know, still experiences PTSD.”  

The tribunal, formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, will now enter a three-year “residual” period, focusing on organizing ts archives and disseminating information about its work for educational purposes.

“We don’t forget the past – because we were there,” San said. “But we also look forward.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at ckenning@usatoday.com and on Twitter @chris_kenning.

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