Case Western Reserve University School of Law professor Michael Scharf traveled over 20 miles of muddy unpaved roads to reach Cheoung Ek, the infamous Cambodian concentration camp and killing field where hundreds of people a day were tortured and murdered near the “magic tree” that blared music to mask the moans of people facing death under Communist dictator Pol Pot’s rule from 1975-79.
Scharf’s visit to the torture camp and other village memorials of stone and skulls coincided with his two-week long trip in late October to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. His mission was to train judges and prosecutors of the newly established United Nations international tribunal that will hear charges against several surviving former Khmer Rouge leaders for their alleged crimes against humanity under the rule of the late Pol Pot.
Scharf also solidified a partnership between the law school and the tribunal, where his students are to provide assistance during the trial’s proceedings.
Under an agreement between the law school and the tribunal, students are working with the prosecutors to research legal issues such as identifying where Cambodian and international legal procedures conflict, issues of legitimacy concerning the establishment of the tribunal and whether the atrocities can be deemed a genocide where no specific race, ethnic or religious group was targeted for killing.
At the invitation of the co-prosecutors and co-investigative judges, Scharf joined a select group of international experts that provided the training to the members of the Cambodia Tribunal. The other trainers included David Tolbert, the deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Luc Cote, a former senior prosecuting attorney of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
But this mission differed from the prosecutorial and judicial training Scharf has led for other international war crimes tribunals, which also includes the Iraqi Tribunal against former dictator Saddam Hussein. This was the first time Scharf, who was recently nominated by the chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone Tribunal for the Nobel Peace Prize, actually walked in places where unimaginable atrocities were committed.
“It was overwhelming,” said Scharf about his visit to the “killing fields.” The task of just getting there after the rainy season was difficult and required stamina, he said.
The memorials are places that foreigners trek to, but are seldom visited by the local population—especially the young, who according to Scharf, generally do not believe the stories their parents tell of what happened 30 years ago.
The trials, which are expected to begin in spring 2007, will take place on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The court was built on an old military site and has a 500-seat auditorium to help educate visitors about this “horrific” chapter in the country’s tragic history, said Scharf.
While skulls in some places are piled as high as four stories with other remains left in fields that emaciated cows now rut through the dirt to eat, Scharf said it will be no easy task for the Tribunal to bring justice for the two million people who were slaughtered.
In one of the worst cases of mass killing in modern history, Cambodians were murdered because they wore glasses, practiced law or medicine, or were perceived to be opponents of Pol Pot’s radical brand of communism.
The 30-year old forensic evidence, which has been tampered with for roadside memorials, washed away by monsoons, or devoured by cows with a craving for calcium, is among the challenges this trial faces, Scharf said. And little usable documentary evidence exists.
“This was an incredible experience,” says Scharf, who in 2005 provided similar training to the judges who are presiding over the trials of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and wrote about the Iraqi High Tribunal in his newly published book, Saddam on Trial (co-authored with Gregory McNeal, assistant director of the law school’s Institute for Global Security Law and Policy).
“It is wonderful to have been asked to participate in such an important endeavor from the ground floor,” he said.
The training sessions covered such issues as international criminal procedure, international crimes, international theories of criminal responsibility and international trial management. Scharf led sessions on maintaining control of the courtroom in the face of a disruptive defendant or defense counsel, the rights of the defense, and the crimes of genocide and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
At the high school-turned torture camp called Tuol Sleng, located in the heart of Phnom Penh’s shopping district, Scharf thought of those lost lives as he stood in blood stained rooms and touched the iron beds and manacles left as they were when the Vietnamese Army found the camp and liberated it. Only a picture on the wall of each room reminds visitors of the tragic souls that once occupied the camp on its final day of operation in 1979.
“Instead of just being about legal theory and precedents, this visit made it all real,” Scharf said.
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