In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge brought mass murder and terror to Cambodia under the leader Pol Pot in one of the worst genocides of the last 50 years. Pol Pot himself claimed 800,000 “enemies” of the Khmer Rouge were slaughtered; some estimate more than 2 million were killed.
Now, three decades later, a United Nations tribunal is set to bring four top officials from the Khmer Rouge to trial early next year for crimes against humanity — and a trio of students from Yale Law School are fighting to restore dignity to 83 members of the Khmer Krom, an ethnic group targeted by Pol Pot’s regime.
Erin Evers LAW ’11, Stephanie Safdi LAW ’12 and Sarah El-Ghazaly LAW ’12, all members of the Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, began working in tandem with a Singapore-based group called Access to Justice Asia (AJA) last month in hopes of including their Khmer Krom clients’ stories in the trial. Their goal was not only to convict Khmer Rouge officials, but also to secure their clients a place in the historical record.
Because the closing order made by the tribunal’s two investigating judges that indicted the four defendants listed only the Vietnamese and Cham Muslim ethnic groups as victims of the genocide, testimony from members of the Khmer Krom will not automatically be included in the court proceedings. Safdi said the reasons why the Khmer Krom were not also included in the closing order are unknown. The AJA and the students contend that their clients’ testimony should be included in the prosecution’s case, and the students are currently studying case theory to develop a strong rationale for including the Khmer Krom.
The ramifications of this case and the students’ workwill be of historical significance to the Khmer Krom, she said.
“Their history hasn’t really been heard before,” Safdi said. “The testimony that’s brought forward shapes the way the world understands the history of regimes like the Khmer Rouge. This is of real importance.”
Laurel Fletcher, a clinical visiting professor at the Law School who is coordinating the students’ efforts to assist the Khmer Krom through the Human Rights Clinic, called the upcoming proceedings“Cambodia’s Nuremberg Trials.”
As the students continue their work, time and geographic distance have presented difficulties.The case is complicated by the fact that the atrocities happened over 30 years ago. In addition, the AJA operates out of Singapore, where the clocks are 12 hours ahead of Eastern standard time.
But distance aside, working with students at a law school like Yale carries big bonuses for AJA and its clients — not the least of which are the intellectual resources available at the University, from its library to its professors.
“We’re a law firm,” Fletcher said. “We have both the expertise and the capability to provide a very high-level legal analysis and fact investigation that otherwise wouldn’t be available.”
AJA and the law students’ clients already have the support of one of the two prosecutors on the case. In June, co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley pledged his support of the Khmer Krom on the grounds of a pagoda where the Khmer Rouge once executed Khmer Krom.
The three men and one woman on trial were among the highest-ranking officials in the Khmer Rouge government. One, Khieu Samphan, was head of state during the genocide; another, Nuon Chea, was Pol Pot’s second-in-command, referred to as “brother number two” of the Khmer Rouge.
Fletcher said the trial is expected to last at leasttwo years.