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As Khmer Rouge tribunal winds down, Cambodian experts see 'small measure of justice'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Cambodia, where, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge killed as many as 2 million people. Decades later, a tribunal was established to help find justice in that Southeast Asian nation. But that tribunal has now formally declined to prosecute its last pending case. In the end, only three senior Khmer Rouge leaders were held accountable. Michael Sullivan has more, and we should note that this report includes a description of a mass murder.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Cambodian people waited so long for justice that some simply gave up after 10 years, or 20, or even 30 - prematurely, it turned out.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Public be seated, please.

SULLIVAN: The regime's chief torturer, Kaing Guek Eav, the commander of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, was the first to be tried in 2009. During his trial, co-prosecutor William Smith reminded the court and the world of the regime's barbarity.

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WILLIAM SMITH: Blindfolded and handcuffed, the prisoners were forced to kneel down in the dark next to their own burial pits. There they waited until the blow of a shovel or car axle broke the back of their heads. And if that did not kill them, their throats were slit before they were kicked into their grave.

SULLIVAN: He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. Two other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, were also convicted. But 15 years and $300 million later, there will be no more.

THEARY SENG: The Khmer Rouge Tribunal was our only opportunity, really, for reconciliation, for justice, and it turned out to be a major sham.

SULLIVAN: Theary Seng is a Cambodian lawyer and human rights activist with a long memory and a long list.

SENG: First, my father. Then, while in prison, my mother. Where my mother was killed, that prison claimed the lives of 30,000.

SULLIVAN: The justice and reconciliation she sought didn't come, she says, because the United Nations accepted the idea of a hybrid U.N.-Cambodian tribunal, under Cambodian law, that allowed Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, to effectively decide who would or wouldn't be tried.

VIRAK OU: It felt like a show, a show that has already been pre-written. They just need to get it to a close, and some would wash their hand and call it a success and call it complete.

SULLIVAN: That's Virak Ou, who lost his father, grandfather and two uncles to the Khmer Rouge and now runs the Phnom Penh think tank Future Forum.

VIRAK: We all knew back some 20 years ago during the negotiations that you have one side who have very little interest to allow any information that could surface that would be too sensitive or could be too costly for some of the people in power or some of their friends.

SULLIVAN: The lawyer Theary Seng, no friend of Hun Sen - she's currently on trial for incitement - says the end of the tribunal means the Cambodian strongman, 36 years in power and counting, has won again.

SENG: He was a former Khmer Rouge soldier, and now he has outwitted the United Nations. And in the process, he managed to wash his own sins, his own bloody hands from that period. So he's brilliant in this way.

SULLIVAN: She blames the U.N. for failing to stand up to Hun Sen, especially when the international community was footing the bill for the court. NPR reached out to the tribunal spokesman for comment with no luck. But the U.N.'s first prosecutor, Robert Petit, seemed to acknowledge the flawed nature of the tribunal even before the first trial had even started.

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ROBERT PETIT: It's certainly not what a lot of people would want it to be. It's not necessarily what I would want it to be, either. But, I mean, real life is like that. It's seldom perfect. So doing the best that we can with what we have now will bring a measure of justice, however imperfect it is.

SULLIVAN: Fifteen years later, with the tribunal winding down, Future Forum's Virak Ou says that's pretty much what Cambodia got.

VIRAK: There is a small measure of justice, and it's better than nothing. But there's still a lot of room and a lot of work to be done, and that will likely - only could be done by next generations.

SULLIVAN: And for many, if not most Cambodians, he says, the tribunal wasn't really even on the radar, taking a back seat to the daily struggle to simply put food on the table for that next generation. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.