Denis D. Gray
Im Savoeun remembers how they clung to each other for the last time, sobbing, as life drained from her husband after a savage beating by the Khmer Rouge. The starving man's crime was stealing a potato.
"I could not help him. There was no medicine. The only thing I could give him were my tears," says the 64-year-old woman, who like countless Cambodians, has spent half a lifetime grieving and waiting for justice.
In 2009, after years of political sabotage, judicial bickering, corruption allegations and funding shortages, the Khmer Rouge is likely to begin facing retribution for the crimes of its 1970s reign of terror.
A U.N.-backed tribunal announced last week it would put the first of five former Khmer Rouge leaders before a panel of Cambodian and international judges Feb. 17 on charges of crimes against humanity. The trials of the other four, all old and ailing, are unlikely to begin until 2010.
Stepping first into the 504-seat courtroom will be 65-year-old Kaing Guek Eav, who headed the Khmer Rouge's largest torture center. The others are Khieu Samphan, the group's former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue. They face a maximum of life imprisonment.
The trials will place Cambodia among a half dozen countries that have been caught up in international criminal trials for crimes against humanity in the past 15 years. But the Cambodian process has had a particularly stormy history, and it faces skepticism about its fairness and scope, and suspicions that some pretext or other will halt it altogether.
"Even if we condemn five or 10 at the tribunal there will be no balance because they killed millions," says Im Savoeun, who lost four other family members. "My husband and son can never come back to me but at least they will have received some justice."
Inflamed by an ultra-communist vision, the Khmer Rouge sought to eradicate traditional Cambodian society and begin again from "year zero." They turned the country into a vast slave labor camp, abolishing all freedoms. At least 1.7 million, some say more than 2 million, died of starvation, disease and executions during this primitive experiment in human engineering.
Despite the scale of atrocities, the Cambodian side at the tribunal, called the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, has sought to strictly limit the court's reach. It recently refused a proposal by Robert Petit, the Canadian international co-prosecutor, to cast the net wider and try up to five more former Khmer Rouge figures.
Even this would not satisfy many critics and victims.
"You can't have 2 million people dead, try five or 10 cases and call it a day. That may be all they do but we are not going to say that justice was done no matter how well that process goes," says Brad Adams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"The reason we want more than 10 is because there are dozens of people with thousands of deaths on their hands running around out there still. They deserve their day in court."
But Prime Minister Hun Sen's government is full of former Khmer Rouge higher-ups, himself included, and has little to gain from the trials. Already in 1998, he declared that Cambodians "should dig a hole and bury the past."
"There is fear among the Cambodian government. The former Khmer Rouge are asking: 'Who is next?'" says Youk Chhang, who heads The Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has collected some 1 million documents related to the Khmer Rouge terror.
Adams, an American who has monitored the court's progress since it was proposed 13 years ago, said, "There has been political interference that intentionally slowed the whole process down just to basically play out the clock on the possibility that some defendants would die."
He and others allege that Cambodian judges have received instructions from the Ministry of Interior on how to act. One judge, Ney Thol, has been particularly singled out. An army general and senior member of Hun Sen's party, he has drawn criticism from human rights groups for his rulings against Hun Sen's chief political rivals.
In an open admission that the trial has more to do with internal politics than standards of international justice, Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang recently argued that putting more than five figures on trial could endanger national stability.
While Japan's contribution this month of $21 million has at least temporarily allayed fears the court might run out of funding, an investigation into alleged corruption — including the buying of positions on the court — has still to be concluded.
Lawyers for Nuon Chea, the ideologue, say the alleged corruption "could undermine the fundamental right to a fair trial."
Petit isn't giving up. "There is still a fair chance that the tribunal will realize a limited measure of justice. It will help set the historical record once and for all and will help people understand and believe what happened here," he said in an interview.
But he added that "anything can always happen; money can run out, the government can ask us to go home or the internationals may decide to leave."
Despite their long wait and the death of many victims and their tormentors, nationwide surveys having show that more than 80 percent of Cambodians back the trials.
Those victims who had tried to put the horror behind them began reliving it when the prospect of trials arose, and to abort the process would cause huge frustration, says Pung Chhiv Kek, a human rights campaigner.
Im Savoeun has gone from being poor farmer's daughter to member of Parliament, and has never forgotten, even though her husband's killers won't be on trial and may already have died a peaceful death.
The slim, handsome woman vividly recalls the backbreaking work from sunrise to sunset clearing forests, digging irrigation canals and planting rice; hunting for frogs, rats and snakes to eat; seeing corpses piled high on oxcarts rumbling off to mass graves; her son dying on a garbage heap as he rummaged for fish bones to eat.
"Thirty years of waiting was long for me," she said, sobbing. "But finally we are starting the trial now, so at least the young generation will learn and understand."