Rosemary Grey, University of Sydney Postdoctoral Fellow (Sydney Law School & Sydney Southeast Asia Center)
Photo: Phonm Penh, November 2018 (author)
On 17 April 1975, Khmer Rouge troops poured into Phnom Penh and began forcing its population into the countryside, marking the start of an oppressive regime that left around 2 million people dead in just under four years.
Last Friday in that same city, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of the Cambodia (ECCC) convicted two leaders of that regime for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Thus concluded the trial phase of the ECCC’s second case, which due to its enormity and the fading health of the accused, has been run in two segments (known as ‘Case 002/1’ and ‘Case 002/2’).
Ieng Sary at a pre-trial detention hearing
Most IntLawGrrls readers have seen by now media reports of the death of Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge, last week. Many of these articles express concern about justice-related consequences for his victims, given that Sary was in the midst of trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The focus has been on the trial process itself, and the harm has been portrayed as a loss of justice as victims will not have the opportunity to see Sary held guilty.
Though those concerns are important, the victims in Cambodia have another concern: the loss of Ieng Sary’s assets. Ieng Sary was a very rich man, and was reportedly responsible for the Khmer Rouge’s finances during and after the 1975-1979 period during which the regime controlled Cambodia. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sary also benefited from the proceeds of lucrative timber and gemstone sales in the northwest of Cambodia. He reportedly had access to a Hong Kong bank account containing (at one point) $20 million that the Chinese government sent to the Khmer Rouge. After Sary was pardoned by the Cambodian government in 1996, his Khmer Rouge colleagues denounced him for stealing $10 million dollars, likely from this account. At his death, he owned luxurious homes in Phnom Penh and Banteay Meanchey province. Had Sary been convicted of the crimes charged, victims might have been able to seize his assets and use them for reparations. With his wife Ieng Thirith having been declared unfit for trial, these assets will no longer be accessible through the ECCC process.
Were the Cambodian government to request assistance obtaining these assets, the World Bank and UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative might be able to track them down. But most observers are skeptical of the Cambodian government’s willingness to do so, or their ability to then distribute Sary’s ill-gotten wealth in a transparent and fair manner.
(credit for photo above right)