Today, on Tuesday 17 February at 9 p.m. the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) open their first trial (see the court schedule on the ECCC website). With a delay of several decades the first Khmer Rouge will be tried for his involvement in crimes against humanity committed under the Pol Pot regime, which haunted Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The “killing fields” policy of the Khmer Rouge had the objective to create a pure peasant society and, indeed, anyone who did not look like a peasant or a military was brutally murdered. It is estimated that between 1.7 and 3 million people perished during that period (see the following press article and the official website for estimations).
Today’s trial deals with the acts committed by the 66-year old Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch. He was the director of the notorious torture center S-21 and is considered one of the more influential leaders of the Pol Pot regime. Four other Khmer Rouge senior leaders are currently detained by the trial but it is unclear when they will face trial.
From a legal point of view, the ECCC are quite an interesting construction. Indeed, it would be imprecise to speak of an “International Tribunal for Cambodia” as the Chambers belong to the Cambodian judicial system. However, an agreement between Cambodia and the United Nations provides for the participation of the international community in the ECCC. This means in practice that the three chambers of the Court (a Pre-Trial Chamber, a Trial Chamber and a Supreme Court chamber) are composed both of Cambodian and international judges. Also, there are two (co-)prosecutors and two investing judges, reflecting the hybrid nature of the ECCC. This seems to be quite reasonable as the ECCC will have to apply both domestic criminal law and international criminal law.
It should be noted that the Cambodian judges have the majority in all chambers. Given that the Cambodian judiciary is not particularly known for its independence, it is not surprising that human rights organizations have firmly questioned the efficiency of the ECCC (see for example the statement by Human Rights Watch). Indeed, when the international Co-Prosecutor recommended the opening of four additional investigations, he immediately faced strong opposition by his Cambodian colleague (see the following press article for details).
In any event, the ECCC are an interesting judicial experiment and it can only be hoped that it helps the Cambodian people to come to terms with its past.