TIME Cambodia

Aging Khmer Rouge Leaders Found Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity

Cambodian and international journalists watch a live video feed showing former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea, left, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan in the courtroom during their trial at the ECCC in Phnom Penh on Aug. 7, 2014. Tang Chhin Sothy—AFP/Getty Images

But victims feel that justice has not been served

More than three decades after Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge wiped out a quarter of the country’s population, two key architects of the regime have been found guilty of crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed court.

“Brother No. 2” Nuon Chea, 88, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million of his compatriots. His 83-year-old co-defendant, Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state, also received a life sentence.

Both were guilty of “extermination encompassing murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity,” chief judge Nil Nonn told the hearing.

There was no discernible reaction from either defendant, both of whom are extremely frail and have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

“The sentences that were imposed reflect the gravity of the crimes of which the accused were convicted,” international co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian said at a press conference after the verdict.

From seizing power in 1975, until its routing by the invading Vietnamese in 1979, the Khmer Rouge inflicted one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Merely being literate or wearing eyeglasses marked one out as counterrevolutionary intellectual, to be subject to torture and gruesome death.

Those not killed were likely to perish from overwork, starvation, disease and neglect. All urban centers were emptied and the population forced to toil in the fields in pursuit of leader Pol Pot’s Year Zero agrarian utopia. These forced evacuations formed a major aspect of the prosecution case.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), hybrid benches applying elements of both Cambodian and international law, were launched in 2006 to mete out justice. But allegations of corruption and absolutions given to senior Khmer Rouge figures now enjoying positions of authority have dogged progress.

Until Thursday’s verdict, only one conviction — that of Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Comrade Duch, the former chief of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh — had been achieved, at a cost of some $200 million.

Moreover, it is unlikely that any more Khmer Rouge figures will stand trial. Pol Pot himself died in a jungle hideout while on the run in 1998, while the identities of five other possible defendants have not been officially released (even if they have been widely circulated). There is also considerable reluctance within the government of Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, to pursue prosecutions.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, however, must both now prepare for a second trial, this time on the specific charge of genocide, which is due to start later this year. Khieu Samphan has admitted that mass killings took place but denies any responsibility, while Nuon Chea blames the invading Vietnamese forces for killing his countrymen.

Nuon Chea’s international defense lawyer, Victor Koppe, described his client as in “very good spirits” on the morning before Thursday’s verdict, and eager to contest the new charges. “He’s very much looking forward to the second trial because, from our perspective, that is much more interesting, as we’ll be able to speak about the role of Vietnam in that period and many other issues,” Koppe said by phone.

For victims, though, there is a sense of justice being lost. Dara Duong was 4 years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power and murdered his father, grandparents, uncle and aunt.

“We wonder why they took so long” he says, about the efforts to hold the perpetrators to account. “We are not satisfied with this process.”

TIME Cambodia

In Cambodia, Dozens of Security Guards Are Hurt in an Opposition Crackdown

Police officers scuffle with protesters during clashes at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh
Police officers scuffle with protesters during clashes at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh July 15, 2014. Pring Samrang—Reuters

Three opposition MPs-elect were also arrested in the melee in Phnom Penh's Freedom Park

Bloody clashes broke out in central Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Tuesday morning as security personnel met with stern resistance while attempting to break up an antigovernment demonstration. Three opposition MPs-elect were arrested in the ensuing melee.

Protesters sporting banners and T-shirts reading “Free the Freedom Park” were confronted by dozens of baton-wielding security guards, but officers were soon overwhelmed and many were savagely beaten with improvised weapons.

At least eight district security guards were severely injured, reports the Phnom Penh Post, including one who had a large rock smashed on his skull while lying prone. Smoke bombs were then deployed to disperse the crowd.

Deputy municipal governor Khuong Sreng told the Cambodia Daily that a total of 37 security guards were hurt. “Two others are in emergency care with critical injuries,” he said.

Cambodia has been wracked by political tensions since elections a year ago that returned strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen but were widely condemned as fraudulent.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has now clung onto power for more than 29 years. Officially, it won 68 out of 123 legislative seats in last July’s elections. However, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) maintains it was cheated out of eight seats that would have swung the balance of power.

CNRP MPs-elect have refused to take their seats in protest and have been spearheading ongoing demonstrations, including the one at Freedom Park, where three of them — Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum and Men Sothavarin — were detained

“So far, police have arrested three CNRP lawmakers,” says Khuong Sreng. “Whenever there’s violence, the leaders of demonstration must be immediately arrested for questioning and investigation.”

A ban against public protests was enacted in Phnom Penh after violent clashes involving striking garment workers — many of whom backed the CNRP — broke out in January with the loss of at least six lives. Freedom Park was closed and surrounded by razor wire to deter demonstrators.

“There was every indication from the government that they would not tolerate any attempt to protest, particularly at the Freedom Park,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, tells TIME. “But it’s within the rights of the people to protest and push the boundaries.”

CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith told the Cambodia Daily that the organization was “sorry for the violent clash today.” However, he maintained that “it was the security guards who started the violence and attacked the protesters as they often have done before.”

TIME Thailand

A Young Thai Activist Has Vanished, and the Junta Isn’t Saying Anything

Police officers stand guard at a shopping mall in Bangkok
Police officers stand guard at a shopping mall in Bangkok on June 8, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

Prominent Red Shirt activist Kritsuda Khunasen has not been heard from since her arrest on May 28

Fears are growing for a 27-year-old female Thai political activist detained by soldiers late last month.

Kritsuda Khunasen was seized on May 28 in Chonburi province, and her arrest was documented on TV. However, nothing has been heard of her since.

Instead of disclosing her whereabouts, or providing evidence of her release, the junta on Tuesday included her name on a list of people ordered to report to them by June 18 — creating the impression that she had not already been detained.

“Summoning someone already in custody raises concerns that the authorities may be preparing to cover up a disappearance and that something may have happened to Kritsuda,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement released by the New York City–based advocacy group.

Since her arrest, neither Kritsuda’s family nor Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission have been able to locate her, the group says.

“The Thai military should put to rest fears that Kritsuda has been forcibly disappeared by immediately disclosing her location and allowing access to a doctor and a lawyer,” stated Adams. “Concerned governments should demand that Thailand’s military authorities immediately explain what has happened to her and ensure her safety.”

Kritsuda was a prominent member of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) activist group, colloquially known as the Red Shirts, which backed the government of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and vehemently opposed military intervention in the nation’s protracted political crisis.

“I still do not have any information,” says Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, a UDD leader who was recently released by the military, subject to stringent constraints. “I’m very concerned that she is missing as everybody would like to see basic human rights maintained.”

Since the May 22 coup, an estimated 500 politicians, activists, journalists and academics have been arbitrarily detained, although no exhaustive figures have been released. HRW alleges that a significant number of secret military detentions have also taken place.

Those critical of the coup — the 12th successful putsch since the end of absolute monarchical rule in 1932 — have been harassed at home and work, threatened with imprisonment or detained. Thais working abroad have been pressured to rein in their disapproval.

The junta evidently feels confident enough to order the nationwide curfew to be lifted on Friday. Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has since promised “a government will be set up by August, or at the very latest September,” with elections some time in the next 15 months.

Nevertheless, critics and activists feel cowed and extremely wary. One grassroots Red Shirt activist in northern Thailand, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest, tells TIME that three of her cohorts were ordered to report to military authorities in the capital on Wednesday, despite halting all political work.

“One of them has been detained by soldiers in Chiang Mai two times [since the coup], and the other two have been detained once before,” she says, “but now they all have to go to Bangkok.”

Meanwhile, rumors of a crackdown on migrant labor — considered the backbone of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy — have prompted some 188,000 Cambodians to flee back home amid fears of arrest, deportation and being shot if they attempt to evade the authorities.

Eight people have so far been killed in traffic accidents related to the exodus. “I think that the current leaders of [the] Thai junta must be held accountable for what has happened,” said Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

TIME Thailand

More Than 120,000 Cambodian Migrants Have Fled the Thai Junta

Cambodian migrant workers carry belongings as they walk to cross border at Aranyaprathet in Sa Kaew
Cambodian migrant workers carry their belongings as they walk to cross the border at Aranyaprathet, Thailand, on June 15, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

Rights groups say the unprecedented exodus shows deep fear of a Thai military crackdown

An exodus of more than 120,000 Cambodians working in Thailand has raised fears of a migrant-labor crackdown in the wake of the Southeast Asian nation’s military coup.

Since the Thai army seized power on May 22, activists, academics and politician have been rounded up, strict censorship imposed and martial law enacted. The ruling junta has also adopted an increasingly nationalistic tone, vowing to deport illegal migrants.

“We see illegal workers as a threat because there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems,” Thai army spokesman Sirichan Ngathong said on Wednesday. (Later, though, another junta spokesperson insisted no crackdown had been ordered.)

Rumors swirl of Cambodian workers shot and killed by the Thai security forces, although Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says he has not been able to independently verify such claims. “There must be some serious abuses actually happening, and I wouldn’t be surprised given the nationalist card being played by the junta,” he says.

Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of Cambodia’s northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey by the main border crossing, told AFP, “They’re returning en masse, like a dam collapsing,” estimating the number at around 122,000 people.

“They’ve never come en masse like this before in our history,” he added. “They said they are scared of being arrested or shot if they run when Thai authorities check their houses.”

Thailand officially hosts around 2 million migrant workers, although the true figure could be as much as 5 million, according to Pimonwan Mahujchariyawong, an economist at the Kasikorn Research Center. Most are undocumented and toil in woefully paid industries such as construction, textiles or seafood processing.

Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant-labor expert formerly with Bangkok’s Mahidol University, says the numbers flooding home show “something exceptional is going on.”

Migrant workers are used to being rounded up and extorted on a regular basis, says Hall, and accept such aggravations with resigned forbearance. That means whatever fears are causing them to flee now must be serious indeed.

“These workers would have spent a lot of their earnings coming to Thailand to earn money for their families,” he says. “Unless they had been there for a long time and made a lot of money, to go back would be a huge risk for them financially.”

The deluge of returnees will likely exacerbate already strained relations between the two neighbors, which frequently spar over disputed territory and Cambodia’s harboring of figures considered “undesirables” by the Thai establishment.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was briefly made “adviser on economics” to Cambodia while wanted on graft charges in his homeland, and many of his most ardent Red Shirt supporters have found sanctuary in Phnom Penh and its surrounds. “It is an open secret that [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen is really close to the Red Shirts,” says Ou Virak.

Another factor, says Hall, is that migrant workers are often paid or ordered to attend political rallies by their employers, and so frequently come under fire by rival factions. Antigovernment rabble-rouser Suthep Thaugsuban had previously attributed attacks on his demonstration camps to Cambodian hired guns. “And it wasn’t just the Cambodians,” says Hall. “There were lots of pictures of migrants in [Burmese] longyis attending rallies.”

Establishing whether the returning migrants are undocumented workers fearing arrest, or individuals with valid papers fearing for their lives, will be pivotal to gauging the gravity of the exodus, says Ou Virak.

The economies of both countries are likely to suffer, with Thai industries reliant on cheap foreign labor and Cambodian families benefiting on remittances from migrant relatives. However, “Thailand relies heavily on [Burmese] labor much more than from Cambodia, and so the impact of this kind of return of labor might not affect the overall economic system,” says Pimonwan.

Thailand’s economy is teetering on the brink of recession, having contracted 2.1% quarter on quarter in the first three months of this year. But economic stimulus plans launched by the military — including the commencement of payments to rice farmers, who are owed $2.8 billion — and a wave of new infrastructure projects should soon bear fruit, says Pimonwan, notwithstanding the depleted migrant workforce. “We think their economic measures will support a recovery in the second half of the year,” she adds.

TIME Cambodia

Trafficking Activist Somaly Mam Is Accused of Faking Her Life Story

Cambodian activist Somaly Mam (R) accepts a "Woman of the Year" award with a child she rescued from sexual slavery, during the 2006 Glamour Magazine "Women of the Year" Honors award show in New York City October 30, 2006. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Following a Newsweek article, and a legal probe that found several alleged inconsistencies in her oft-cited biography, Mam has quit the NGO she helped found

Somaly Mam, the world-renowned campaigner against sex trafficking, and a TIME 100 alumni from 2009, resigned Wednesday from the organization she started, after a probe found apparent inconsistencies in the shocking personal history she has frequently cited when raising funds for her cause.

The Somaly Mam Foundation’s executive director Gina Reiss-Wilchins published a statement on the organization’s website, expressing “heartfelt disappointment” over Mam’s decision, which came after a two-month investigation by a legal firm the foundation hired to investigate the allegations of falsification.

The firm looked at various claims made by Mam, including her being sold into sexual slavery at a young age.

Mam’s resignation comes a week after a May 21 Newsweek article, which questioned several of the central assertions of her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, such as her being an orphan and having been abducted.

“We remain grateful to Somaly’s work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls,” stated Reiss-Wilchins. “We look forward to moving past these events and focusing all of our energies on this vital work.”


Laos Is Going to Build a Dam That Will Kill Off the Last Irrawaddy Dolphins

An Irrawaddy dolphin, also known as the Mekong dolphin, swims in the river at the Kampi village in Kratie province, 230 km (143 miles) northeast of Cambodia Chor Sokunthea / Reuters

The species could be wiped out from the Mekong River by a new hydropower project, which also threatens to decimate fishing stocks

The majestic Mekong River stretches some 4,350 km from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea, carving through China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Around 60 million people rely on Southeast Asia’s longest waterway for survival, but plans to build a hydropower station in southern Laos are threatening their livelihoods, and may also spell catastrophe for one of the world’s most mysterious creatures — the Irrawaddy Dolphin.

Only around 85 Irrawaddy dolphins — which are closely related to the killer whale and have a distinctive rounded snout — still exist in the Mekong, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They occupy a 190-km stretch near where the Lao government is planning to build the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam.

“Plans to construct the Don Sahong dam in a channel immediately upstream from these dolphins will likely hasten their disappearance from the Mekong,” said WWF-Cambodia’s country director Chhith Sam Ath late February.

According to a WWF paper, construction will entail excavating millions of tons of rock using explosives, which will create strong sound waves that can kill dolphins. Increased boat traffic, polluted water and habitat degradation represent other major risks to the dolphins, which are already vulnerable to low calf survival and accidental entanglement in rubbish or fishing equipment.

Known as the 4,000 Islands, this stunning region also boasts the Khone Phapheng Waterfall, the largest cascades in Asia — a popular tourist draw along with the dolphins themselves. It’s here that the Mekong splits into multiple channels, and it is the largest of these, the Hou Sahong, which will be harnessed for the dam.

The Mekong is second only to the Amazon for biodiversity, being home to more than 1,200 different fish species. Some 80% to 90% of these use the Hou Sahong route to travel upstream; hindering their progress could decimate the world’s largest inland fishery.

“We view that impacts on fisheries will be significant,” said Le Duc Trung, Head of Vietnam delegation to the Mekong River Commision (MRC) in January. “It is not possible to [substitute] modified channels for upstream fish migration [for] the existing Hou Sahong.”

Harnessing hydropower potential is a major policy plinth for Laos’ communist government, which boasts ambitious plans for up to 60 dams and intends to turn the landlocked nation into the “battery of Southeast Asia,” according to Industry and Commerce Minister Nam Viyaketh. “We can sell our energy to our neighbors,” he said during a 2010 interview. “Laos can be rich.”

But critics insist the comparatively measly 260 megawatts proffered from Don Sahong does not justify the huge risks involved. (China’s Three Gorges Dam produced 70 times that amount in 2010.) “The benefits can be considered pretty small when you compare with the impact that this dam might have,” Pianporn Deetes, a local coordinator for the International Rivers NGO, tells TIME.

The WWF advocates exploring alternatives such as the Thako Project, which, Pianporn says, “could generate approximately the same amount of electricity as but at lower cost and with far less impacts as it does not involve building a barrier across any of the channels of the Mekong mainstream.”

The Mekong River Commission meets in Hanoi early next month and has agreed to take discussions to ministerial level. But even if objections are raised to the project, as is likely, there is no guarantee it will be halted. A larger dam in northern Laos, the Xayaburi, is already well under construction despite not receiving commission approval.

Indeed, “according to our field research there has not been any construction [at Don Sahong] yet but they are making preparations; for the bridge, for the access road and telling villagers to get ready to move,” says Pianporn.

Adds Gerry Ryan, technical adviser with WWF-Cambodia: “It is not too late to suspend the Don Sahong project and consider smarter alternatives. Building it will almost certainly cause the extirpation of their dolphins and threaten critical fisheries.”

TIME Cambodia

Cambodia Is a Deadly Political Mess That the World Completely Ignores

Cambodian military police clash with protesters during a protest in Phnom Penh on Jan. 27, 2014 Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images

Friday marks six months since much maligned polls in Cambodia, where bloody crackdowns, racism and rampant human rights violations continue to define an increasingly fraught society

As Thailand teeters on the brink of a full-scale political meltdown, the simmering strife in neighboring Cambodia can be easy to miss. Yet six months after disputed elections, the situation remains grave, featuring the lethal suppression of peaceful protests and extra-judicial detentions.

The government of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has endured for some three decades, engorged on rampant corruption and typified by gross human rights abuses. “For far too long, Hun Sen and his colleagues have been getting away with violence, human-rights abuses, corruption, and media and electoral manipulation without serious internal or external challenge,” former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans wrote in an op-ed yesterday.

Ominously, however, opposition attempts to oust Hun Sen have been increasingly marred by controversy and bloodshed.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 68 out of 123 legislative seats at general elections on July 28. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claims it was defrauded out of eight seats that would have swung the balance of power.

That the deck was stacked is undeniable; all major institutions including the military, police, judiciary, media and even the watchdog National Election Committee operate under the auspices of the CPP. Large numbers of opposition supporters were not included on voter lists.

“There are a lot of very specific systematic and institutional shortcomings in the way elections are administered,” says Laura Thornton, Cambodia director for the National Democratic Institute, who also cites engrained media bias and intimidation. According to a study released Friday by Harvard and Sydney University, Cambodia’s election ranked 69th out of 73 recently held worldwide.

CNRP legislators, buoyed by the return from exile of party leader Sam Rainsy, refused to take their seats, and tens of thousands took to the streets, with sporadic outbreaks of violence last September.

Increasingly, opposition protesters have found common cause with striking workers in the nation’s booming apparel sector—a $5.5 billion industry, yet one in which average monthly wages stand at only $80.

“Unless workers put in pretty outrageous levels of overtime, it in no way constitutes a living wage,” says David Welsh, Cambodia program director for the Solidarity Center labor advocacy group.

Strikers’ demands for a $160 minimum wage have been backed by the CNRP and numbers swelled at fresh protests in January. Official retribution has been harsh, however. A crackdown by security forces on the latest round of protests claimed five lives and saw another 40 demonstrators hospitalized with gunshot wounds. In addition, 21 people, including three leading union leaders, have been incarcerated without due process, and continue to languish in “very harsh conditions” by the Vietnamese border, amid “a broad-based assault on trade union rights,” says Welsh. The government is also using legal harassment: along with almost 200 civil suits filed against six major independent union federations, on Wednesday the Labor Ministry said the constitutional right to freedom of assembly had been suspended.

The possibility of further bloodshed remains high. On Tuesday, Hun Sen lifted a ban on public gatherings imposed immediately after January’s protests, but warned that opposition rallies would be met with rival groups of pro-government supporters. Judging by the bands of regime thugs at previous demonstrations, this “veiled threat” is “irresponsible and could lead to clashes,” Sam Rainsy tells TIME. “Hun Sen is probably afraid of our momentum.”

So what hope is there of a compromise? Negotiations at a “technical level” are ongoing, says Sam Rainsy, and focus on the pivotal issue of reforming the electoral process.

“If they do come to some sort of agreement on these issues, which are very important for the political negotiations, then it could pave the way for those to open again,” says Thornton.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, agrees. “The opposition need to negotiate key concessions and then agree to go into parliament,” he says.

Sam Rainsy, though, is holding out for more. Refusing to accept that the July election was legitimate, he insists on a new ballot before the end of the current term in July 2018, pushing for mid-term polls at the start of 2016. “For my party, the sooner the better,” he says.

At the same time, the surge in political unrest has led to a spike in attacks on Vietnamese, who constitute the country’s largest minority but towards whom there is much antipathy. Hun Sen is oft-portrayed as a Vietnamese puppet, and pilloried for granting land concessions to Vietnamese rubber and timber firms. Capitalizing on this, Sam Rainsy has made anti-Vietnamese sentiment an increasingly common element of his rhetoric.

On Feb. 15, a young man of Vietnamese descent, Nguyen Yaing Ngoc, was beaten to death in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district after a minor traffic infraction. Police say the word “yuon,” a local slur for Vietnamese, was bellowed before the 28-year-old’s lynching at the hands of an enraged mob.

It is a term Sam Rainsy has used repeatedly during his campaign, although he denies inciting race hatred. “We are not against the Vietnamese,” he says. “We are against Hun Sen serving a foreign country’s interest instead of his own.”

Others find it harder to draw a distinction. “Sam Rainsy is a moderate, no doubt, and is also a very smart guy, but he’s not principled,” says Ou Virak. “He’s playing with fire.”

TIME Cambodia

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Trials Are a Shocking Failure

Former Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea is seen on a television screen (R) as people (L) line up to attend the trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh in Oct. 2013 Tang Chhin Sothy—AFP/Getty Images

Hearings into an appalling genocide have seen just five indictments and only one conviction in eight years at a cost of some $200 million

Tourists who wander Cambodia’s Killing Fields don’t just encounter the ghosts of victims. Even today, scraps of clothing and bone fragments belonging to some of the 1.7 million people slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge peek through the brooding earth.

From 1975 until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, Cambodia experienced one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, during which around a quarter of the population perished as Pol Pot pursued his demented agrarian utopia.

Phnom Penh’s glorious Parisian-style boulevards were emptied as ruthless cadres — many mere babes handed AK47s and indoctrinated with nihilistic zeal — forced the entire population to toil in the fields, and ruthlessly culled anyone on the flimsiest pretense. Crying at a funeral, falling ill or wearing eyeglasses were deemed anti-revolutionary and met with torture and gruesome death.

“For 20 years, I had nightmares every day, and every time I talked about what happened I would get stomach aches and all the symptoms of PTSD,” says Kilong Ung, who was 15 when the Khmer Rouge turned his life upside down and extinguished the lives of 50 of his relatives.

The U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was founded in 2006 to investigate these crimes against humanity and hold those responsible to account. The proceedings — touted as the largest such reckoning since the Nuremberg trials of prominent Nazis — were to target the very top level regime figures and those chiefly responsibly for particularly heinous acts. Life imprisonment was to be the maximum punishment.

But virtually since the outset, allegations of corruption and politicization have dogged the ECCC’s glacial progress, and proceedings were halted for long periods as national staff went on strike after not being paid. Late last month, an agreement was finally reached for funding to be restored after the U.N. received certain assurances. Nevertheless, serious questions still hover over a tribunal that has delivered only one conviction in eight years at a cost of some $200 million.

“This is no longer a legitimate court,” says Theary Seng, a prominent U.S.-trained human rights lawyer whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. “It’s a sham. It does such a disservice to Cambodian victims and international justice in general.”

The original ECCC was formed as a hybrid tribunal, comprising elements of international and domestic law, with proceedings heard by foreign and Cambodian judges. Four original cases were set out.

Case 001 against Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Comrade Duch, saw the former chief of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, convicted for crimes against humanity relating to more than 15,000 deaths. He is currently serving a life prison sentence.

Case 002 originally had four defendants. Nuon Chea, 87, was Pol Pot’s right hand man and known as “brother number 2.” Khieu Samphan, 82, was the former head of state. But former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sery died, and his wife, Ieng Thirit, another senior regime figure, was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

Cases 003 and 004 have stalled — even the names of those under investigation were not officially revealed, although they have been widely circulated. And that represents the entirety of proceedings.

Compared to this paltry total, there were 161 indictments in the former Yugoslavia, 95 in Rwanda and 22 in Sierra Leone. But “I don’t think the present government wants to have any further indictments other than the four accused in Case 002,” Victor Koppe, a Dutch lawyer currently defending Nuon Chea at the ECCC, tells TIME. “There are strong indications that they probably feel it is getting close to themselves.”

Many established figures in Cambodian politics today previously had positions of influence within the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen was himself a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, and lost an eye in battle before fleeing to Vietnam to escape an internal purge. (In 1975, his battalion oversaw a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Cham minority group, although Hun Sen claims to have been recovering in hospital at the time.)

The debate rages over whether the Khmer Rouge was “essentially a top-down, pyramidal type structure,” as maintained by Prof. Greg Stanton, an expert in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, or whether, as Koppe says, there were various and opposing factions responsible for atrocities. “To only focus on one faction within the Khmer Rouge is already questionable,” he argues.

Certainly, senior Khmer Rouge figures close to the Hun Sen administration have been barred from testifying, such as current National Assembly Chairman Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim. “In any other international tribunal the importance and relevance of someone like Heng Samrin would be so obvious,” says Koppe, frustrated that his “firsthand knowledge of decisions being made in ‘75 and afterwards” cannot be called upon. Blocking Heng Samrin from court, he adds, “is a clear sign of the unfairness of the proceedings.”

Critics say the trials have been highjacked to specifically absolve former leading Khmer Rouge figures now within Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party. “I’m in awe of Hun Sen,” says Theary Seng sardonically, deploring the “manipulated and whitewashed” history the ECCC is now helping to propagate. “It will go down in all the history books as a brilliant move.”

Crucially, Hun Sen insisted on proceedings taking place on home soil, a marked departure from other such tribunals, such as those investigating genocide in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, which took place in other countries. “True international tribunals [are] situated somewhere else and are much less prone to government influence or interference,” explains Koppe, who previously worked in the Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone tribunals.

Stanton says it was important to base the court domestically “to give Cambodians a way to understand what happened in their country,” However, he concedes that “Judges who are part of the Cambodian system are always going to continue to be influenced by Cambodian politics.”

The U.N. insists that it has done everything possible to ensure fair and transparent proceedings. “The long history of negotiations leading to the creation of the ECCC clearly establishes that alternative structures for justice were advanced and thoroughly considered by the Secretariat and by Member States of the United Nations,” spokesman Lars Olsen told TIME via email.

That is no comfort to victims such as Kilong Ung, for whom justice always felt beyond reach. “They are never going to catch the guy who starved my parents to death,” he says. “There are a lot of mid-level Khmer Rouge who got out with the refugees and are all over the world right now — some with the wealth they took with them. Just like the Nazis.”

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