The Belated Khmer Rouge Trials

The case of the century takes place in the wrong century.

Kill another human being, you will likely spend many years locked away. Murder millions and you will likely evade punishment entirely. The belated trial of surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge conducted by the United Nations and Cambodia affirms this paradox.

From 1975 to 1979, the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into a human slaughterhouse. The Maoist government killed roughly 20 percent of the population, about 1.5 million people, during its brief but bloody rule. The militant atheists forced Muslims to eat pork, killed every other Cambodian Catholic, and felled the population of Buddhist monks from 60,000 to 1,000. The Khmer Rouge abolished money, emptied cities, imposed a drab black national uniform, executed the handicapped as shirkers, and outlawed eyeglasses as a vain capitalist accessory. In their violent wake, the Khmer Rouge left a ravaged population in which women outnumbered men by two to one and minors nearly outnumbered the remaining adults.

Perhaps the strangest thing about these strange atrocities is that nobody was ever really held accountable. Attempting to right this wrong is the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which is currently trying a case against top officials of the Khmer Rouge government.

The court trying four of the surviving leaders of the Cambodian Communist Party is a joint creation of the United Nations and Cambodia. The defendants in the ongoing trial are “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary, and Sary’s wife, the minister of social action, Ieng Thirith. The charges against the foursome include genocide, crimes against humanity, religious persecution, war crimes, torture, and murder. The regime’s leader, Pol Pot, died of a heart attack in the custody of fellow Communist guerrillas in 1998.

The trial overflows with controversy. The visual of the infirm accused—with Pol Pot deputy Nuon Chea even wearing a winter cap in the air-conditioned courtroom to go along with his ever-present sunglasses—departing the proceedings for the comfort of their cells has provoked competing reactions. Adding jail time to the punishment of Father Time appears as overkill to some. Others have difficulty finding sympathy for people who engineered the murders of so many. With the ages of the defendants ranging from 79 to 84, whatever time they spend behind bars will certainly be brief.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has pressured the court to refrain from instigating additional trials. The unannounced decision not to pursue more cases sparked several resignations among the special tribunal’s legal staff and cast a cloud over the process. A proposed “Case 3” would have targeted Sou Met and Meas Mut, who now serve as generals in Hun Sen’s army. The squashing of these indictments, along with an earlier sentence reduction for the lone Khmer Rouge official convicted of crimes relating to the late-’70s regime, provokes speculation of whether impartial justice is possible for the Communist killers in a country essentially run by their former comrades.

In America, cable news networks that interrupt scheduled programming for live courtroom shots of a hard-partying mother accused of murdering her daughter overlook the sensational trial around the world in Cambodia. And even in Cambodia, the scene of the crimes, much of the populace simply wants to move on. How quickly the unforgettable is forgotten.

The most extraordinary thing about the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is not that it has convicted exactly one person of crimes against humanity on a budget that approaches $150 million. It is that it operates three-and-a-half decades after Pol Pot’s Year Zero. This is something akin to the Nuremberg Trials being held in the late 1970s. It would have been the trial of the century if only it had been held in the right century. What cliché one favors—“justice delayed is justice denied” or “better late than never”—dictates whether one shouts “farce” or “finally” at the proceedings. Ultimately, there is no moral statute of limitations on murder.

From roaming bands of prepubescent cigar-chomping assassins to the mountains of human skulls, the arresting imagery of Pol Pot’s Cambodia makes our brain doubt our eyes. We are skeptical of not merely the events, but even the possibility of them. But what seems like a bad dream really happened. Killing-fields Cambodia has lent this surreal quality to the belated attempt to mete out justice for its horrors.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, forthcoming this fall from ISI Books. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at