Healing a fractured nation:

Kate Fechter

Washburn University and the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice came together to hold the fifth forum in the series Resolving Conflict in a Fractured World Thursday, Jan. 14 at the Washburn School of Law.

Co-sponsored by Phi Alpha Theta, the presentation, “Seeking Justice After Genocide: International Courts and Cambodia,” featured Washburn alumna Samantha Gassie who shared her knowledge of the Cambodian hybrid judicial system. The system includes the Extraordinary Chambers and Courts of Cambodia, which is currently trying to provide justice for the people of Cambodia over the war crimes committed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Gassie, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in liberal studies from Washburn, studied in Cambodia when writing her thesis. Bob Beatty, Gassie’s mentor, who told her about the opportunity in Cambodia also spoke at the event, along with Thomas Prasch.

During her time in Cambodia in the fall of 2008, Gassie conducted 17 interviews in fall of 2008. Her interviews ranged from people from the U.S. and Canada who were involved in the legalities, to Cambodian citizens who shared with her their personal accounts of surviving the Khmer Rouge. Everyone above a certain age is either a victim or a perpetrator.

The Khmer Rouge was in total power from 1975-1979. During that time period, an estimated 1.3 to 3.3 million were massacred in the killing fields, amounting to almost 50 percent of the country’s population.

People were brought into S-21 or Tuol Sleng, a school turned into an interrogation center, for questioning. They were tortured until they named five names of usually innocent friends or neighbors and then killed. The people named were then brought in for  the same treatment, creating a deadly cycle of violence. Of the 17,000 people that went in, only 12 people total walked out. There are four survivors of S-21 alive today.

The ECCC was established in 2001 by negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodian officials. Gassie said it is a unique war crimes tribunal because it is inside Cambodia, meaning there is a lot of victim involvement. The ECCC and the Cambodian national government are working to set up education to strengthen and improve the credibility of the justice system in the country.

However, the tribunal does have its problems. The process has suffered from a lack of impartiality, because most judges and lawyers are from the victim community. Beyond that, the process itself has been slowed by issues reaching a consensus between the Cambodian judges and the U.N., and finding a balance for victim involvement in the process.

Translation has also been a problem for the tribunal because the court works in three languages: French, Khmer and English. There has been an issue with possible corruption in the translations because Cambodians translate.

Problems aside, there are five people from the Khmer Rouge leaders waiting to stand trial. Gassie spoke about one trial that was already conducted by the ECCC. Comrade Duch, the commander of S-21 was tried in 2009. During his trial, the defense wanted to have him released because they said the court was not credible.

The ECCC cannot hand down death sentences, only life in prison. Most defendants are 80 or older now meaning the trials are more of a healing process for the Cambodians than powerful punishments for the perpetrators. The hope is that the process will help Cambodians to move forward.

“The most hopeful thing is that Cambodians can build a sense of law and order,” Gassie said. “Cambodians can use the ECCC as a stepping stone to move forward and collectively face the atrocities as a nation.”

Gassie is currently working on her doctorate at Arizona State for political science with a major in comparative politics and a minor in international relations. Her capstone project featuring the interviews from her time in Cambodia can be found in the Mabee Library.

“I think ECCC is something everyone should be aware of,” said Dan Locey, a Washburn alumnus who went to Cambodia with Beatty in May 2008. “People my age and younger can’t remember the Khmer Rouge. Any attempt to bring ECCC to light is helpful.”

The Topeka Center for Peace and Justice will be working with Washburn to bring more forums on international justice to campus in the coming months.


Kate Fechter is a junior mass media major. Reach her at [email protected]