22 February 2009

Lessons from the Khmer Rouge tribunal

Saturday, February 21, 2009 9:41 PM Lessons from the Khmer Rouge tribunal Fitria Chairani , PHNOM PENH | Sat, 02/21/2009 1:22 PM | Opinion - On Feb.17, 2009, the ECCC (Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia) held the opening session of its first trial, the trial of Kiang Guek Eav, alias Duch. He is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity while he was the head of the notorious S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh.

Most victims taken to the prison during that period were tortured and forced to confess by way of electric shocks, beatings and whippings, placing bags over their heads and pouring water into their noses, before being bludgeoned to death or "smashed" in a field on the city's outskirts. Women, children and even babies were among those murdered.

Duch and four other senior Khmer Rouge cadres are alleged to be responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975-1979. The others are the Khmer Rouge second-in-command, Nuon Chea; the former foreign minister Ieng Sary; the former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith; and the former head of state Khieu Samphan.

The initial hearing of the trial took two days, which mainly discussed the role of the civil parties, the admissibility of evidence and the witness lists, as well as preliminary objections brought by the defense. It was a big day for the people of Cambodia, as they saw Duch for the first time in decades (some of the victims had not even seen Duch since they were detained in S-21 prison).

Thirty years have elapsed since the occurrence of such brutality. The trial was finally set up, and showed the significant progress made toward the truth-seeking process in Cambodia upon those most responsible for committing such extreme crimes during the Khmer Rouge era.

Finally, the ECCC was established in 2003 under an agreement between the United Nations and Cambodia. Up until this present moment, the ECCC agenda is to put the above five people on trial, with the debated notion of putting more accused people on trial on the agenda. This is due to the history of such brutality, which involved more people that could be deemed the most responsible for the crimes committed.

To open such a traumatic history is not easy. This is proved by the controversy that occurred during the legal process. Conflict of interest is often raised, especially when there are many people that were involved as members of the Khmer Rouge.

In comparison, specifically with regard to the truth-seeking process, Indonesia has also been through some difficult situations in terms of conflict that could possibly be alleged as crimes against humanity, specifically on gross human rights violations. Among others are the alleged gross human rights violations in East Timor.

Although East Timor is no longer part of Indonesia, it is still part of Indonesia's history and any incident that occurred there can be deemed Indonesia's responsibility if it took place between 1974 and 1999.

Indeed, the Special Panel for Serious Crimes in East Timor, established right after the secession, successfully convicted 84 individuals and acquitted three; however that panel only had limited jurisdiction, which was to prosecute crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, sexual offences and torture committed between Jan. 1, 1999, and Oct. 25, 1999. Such a process also excluded a number of Indonesian nationals, who were allegedly involved in the atrocities.

However, in 2007, the final report by the Indonesian and East Timor Truth and Friendship Commission as mandated by the UNTAET Regulation No. 10/2001 has taken one significant step toward facing the truth. It has revealed several human rights violations committed between 1974 until 1999, including ones allegedly committed by Indonesian Military officers.

It came as a surprise when the report found that 84,200 civilians had died between the late 1970s until the early 1980s due to acts by the Indonesian Military, by the bombing of civilian territory, the destruction of food supplies, the forced movement of people away from Fretilin territory, as well as denying food supplies from international aid agencies and organizations.

Moreover, torture and execution were also reported to be repetitively conducted in an inhumane manner by incarcerating detainees without adequate food and water in pitch-dark cells, after being stripped naked and tortured continuously. There were also numbers of detainees killed after being severely beaten. Attacks on civilians were reported, with cases of short-distance shootings, grenade attacks, executions, rapes and sexual harassment, mutilations and many other extreme punishments.

In addition to that, systematic murder and forced disappearances occurred during the early Indonesian occupation, specifically during the period 1978-1979 and 1983-1984 to the people allegedly actively involved with the resistance movement. Forced movement and mass destruction occurred just before the referendum in1999, in order to secure the pro-integration position in the referendum.

These gross human rights violations must not be ignored or tolerated. As a civilized nation, one that has committed itself to the rule of law and human rights, Indonesia has undisputed obligations to act upon such violations. It has to face up to the allegation its military, police and civilian government might be "institutionally responsible" or even that some personnel are "individually responsible" for "gross human rights violations" before and after East Timor's independence referendum in 1999.

Hopefully, there will be more action taken following the commission's report, as a sign that, indeed, this nation is ready to face the truth and bring anyone responsible to justice. This does not apply only to East Timor of course, but other places of conflict such as Aceh and Papua. In this case, the Cambodian precedent of a truth-seeking process could be very useful.

The writer is currently working as a legal intern at the Office of Co-Prosecutors at the ECCC.

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