The court in Cambodia announced the death of Ieng Sary “with regret.” Those words were puzzling: Did the court regret the passing of a human being, who may have meant a lot to his family? Or did the court regret that it had not yet completed its trial of him?
Ieng Sary was a Khmer Rouge leader, Brother Number 3, to be specific. Brother Number 1 was Pol Pot, who was Ieng Sary’s brother-in-law. Ieng Sary was typical of the Khmer Rouge: a student in Paris; a member of the French Communist party; a professor of history back home; a forger of the new Red world that would smash inequality.
The Khmer Rouge took power on April 17, 1975. This was the launch of “Year Zero,” as they had it. They ruled for three years, eight months, and 20 days — till January 7, 1979. Their rule was one of the most savage episodes in human history. They killed around 2 million people, which is to say, between a fifth and a quarter of the population. They had many apologists in the West, among intellectuals.
Ieng Sary was indicted for war crimes in the aforementioned court a long time after: on September 15, 2010. When he died last month, at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, he was 87.
The court is known as the ECCC, which stands for Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. To speak very formally, it is the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea. That’s what the Year Zero people called Cambodia: “Democratic Kampuchea.”
It is a hybrid court, the ECCC: part Cambodian, part international, or U.N. But it is mainly Cambodian: A majority of the personnel are Cambodian. The court uses a mixture of Cambodian and international law.
Not until 2006 did the court begin its work. Not until 2009 did trials commence. What took so long, seeing as the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979? In brief, Cambodia was enmeshed in civil war, to one degree or another. And then there were protracted negotiations between the Cambodian government and the U.N.: What would the court look like? What would its powers be? In the government are plenty of former Khmer Rouge. This makes prosecution tricky.
The court is supposed to accomplish a number of things for Cambodia. It is supposed to expose the truth. It is supposed to enhance the rule of law. It is supposed to give survivors of the genocide a voice. (Survivors may participate in the trials either as complainants or as civil parties.) The court is supposed to punish the guilty, of course. And it is supposed to occasion some kind of catharsis. In a word, the court, like other courts, is supposed to achieve justice, however rough. This has proven elusive.
Ieng Sary was a defendant in the second and current trial of the ECCC — Case 002. He was one of four defendants. Now there are two: Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, i.e., Brother Number 2 and Brother Number 4. They are 86 and 81 years old. They are frail men who have suffered strokes. Brother Number 1, Pol Pot, died in 1998 at 72.
The Nazis were much younger during the Nuremberg trials — in their forties and fifties. Hitler himself had just turned 56 when he avoided capture and trial, shooting himself.