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Justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge?

I asked Brian Calvert, a reporter for Voice of America Khmer in Washington, to weigh in on today’s news that a key lieutenant of the notorious Pol Pot had finally been taken into custody. Here’s Brian’s take: The indictment and detention Wednesday of Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s chief lieutenant in the Khmer Rouge, for war ...

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I asked Brian Calvert, a reporter for Voice of America Khmer in Washington, to weigh in on today’s news that a key lieutenant of the notorious Pol Pot had finally been taken into custody. Here’s Brian’s take:

The indictment and detention Wednesday of Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s chief lieutenant in the Khmer Rouge, for war crimes and crimes against humanity is the most significant action taken so far by a bedeviled tribunal that was established more than a year ago.

Whether or not his arrest will spell justice, and for whom, remains to be seen.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP

Nuon Chea, also known as Brother No. 2, was flown by helicopter Wednesday morning from his home in the mountains of northwest Cambodia and questioned in Phnom Penh, the capital, by judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the official name of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Nuon Chea has said he will happily face a trial. But it’s not because he regrets his actions. Rather, he sees a trial as a chance to exonerate his role in the Khmer Rouge, which called itself Democratic Kampuchea. In his view, Pol Pot’s regime was only defending the Cambodian people from Vietnamese agents and American bombs.

In reality, the Khmer Rouge used the fear of a Vietnamese takeover and of U.S. fighting in Indochina as fuel for their insurrection. After they took power, as many as 2 million people starved to death or were executed. The legacy of that regime and the civil strife that followed its ouster has been a war-battered people, a devastated infrastructure, and a country that still hasn’t recovered.

Nuon Chea is widely believed to be a chief architect of the regime’s murderous policies. According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been gathering evidence in Cambodia for potential trials for a decade, Nuon Chea held posts as deputy secretary of the Cambodian Communist Party’s Central Committee and as a member of the Party’s Standing Committee, the bodies most responsible for policies of the regime.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP

Given Cambodia’s bloody history, it may be hard for many to imagine why it has been so difficult to bring Khmer Rouge figures like Nuon Chea to justice. The joint tribunal has struggled since its inception, hamstrung by bickering among U.N.-appointed international jurists and their Cambodian counterparts. Nuon Chea is only the second man to be taken into court custody. Since July, the courts have been holding Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name, Duch, the head of S-21, Cambodia’s infamous torture center. Also known as Tuol Sleng, it’s now a genocide museum for tourists.

The courts are investigating at least three more suspects for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but their names have not been released.

Will there be justice for the Khmer Rouge’s victims? We just don’t know. The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, recently told VOA Khmer that over the next one or two years, “we’ll have at least, I would guess, somewhere around a dozen people being brought up on charges of genocide.”

“There were hundreds of people who were guilty of genocide, but, frankly, you have to draw the line somewhere,” he added. “You can’t have the trial last for 20 years or 30 years, you can’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the trial, but you have to find at least the most responsible for genocide and bring them to trial, and I think we are now on the way to doing that.”

We’ll know soon enough if he is right.

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