Occupying swampy land about an hour outside of Phnom Penh, behind the National Army Headquarters on National Road 4 beyond Phnom Penh International Airport, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)—more commonly known at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT)—continue to quietly try those accused of being responsible for alleged crimes of the Khmer Rouge, whose four year reign saw the loss of up to 2 million lives and widespread destruction of culture, livelihoods and infrastructure.
In the 11 years since the first judges were sworn in, the United Nations-supported hybrid court has had three successful prosecutions, seen two defendants pass away, and heard the testimonies of thousands of survivors, perpetrators and experts on what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge controlled the country.
The trials at the KRT, housed in the converted army concert hall, have been open for members of the public, and villagers from across the country are bused to attend sessions in order to witness the court in action. Tourists formerly had to brave a 1-long tuk-tuk ride, but the recently expanded public bus system now extends to the court and provides a cheaper and more comfortable—if just as slow—option.
Surrendering one’s phone and cameras at the security station before passing through a metal detector, visitors are able to follow the day’s proceedings, with simultaneous translations offers in English, French and Khmer, the working languages of the court.
In 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the former head of the S-21 security center was the first to be sentenced by the KRT. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity, murder and torture, and in 2012 his sentence was extended to life imprisonment after appeal. Over 14,000 prisoners, many of them Khmer Rouge soldiers accused of colluding with the CIA, the KGB, the Vietnamese, or all three at once, were interrogated, tortured and then executed at a “Killing Field” to the south of Phnom Penh. Both of these sites are popular tourist destinations in Phnom Penh.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2014, upheld upon appeal 2016. Their co-accused Ieng Sary and wife Ieng Tharith died without conviction. The verdict against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan for the charges of genocide against Muslim Cham and Vietnamese communities are still pending.
Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are kept in a purpose-built facility behind the courthouse, while Duch is serving his life sentence in a public prison. The status of a number of planned future cases is unclear, with the government and Cambodian court officials stating their desire to wind-down the KRT following completion of the trial against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
For those wishing to visit the court, it is worth contacting the Public Affairs Section to see what is taking place that day before making the long journey.
Depending on day, visitors might witnesses discussions on administrative aspects of the court, or hear grim testimony of witnesses about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. Warning, this is not for the fainthearted, but for those interested in learning more about this period of Cambodian history or to experience an international tribunal in action, it can be a fascinating experience.
Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)
National Road 4, Chaom Chau Commune, Porsenchey District, Phnom Penh
P.O. BOX 71, Phnom Penh, Cambodia