PHOTO: Youk Chhang with former Khmer Rouge tribunal defendant Im Chaem in 2011. (DC-Cam, file)
Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal has dropped its case against a suspect accused of killing thousands of people at torture centres and slave labour camps during the country's tragic agrarian revolution, in which an estimated 2 million people were killed.
During a remarkable reconciliation in June 2010 in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, that suspect, Im Chaem, read to scores of school children from a history book detailing the crimes of the murderous regime she served.
Flanking her stood Youk Chhang, once a 15-year-old victim of the slave labour camp she allegedly oversaw, helping her read his foreword to a text book of Khmer Rouge crimes he was successfully launching into the national high school curriculum.
"Writing about this bleak period of history may run the risk of reopening old wounds for the survivors of Democratic Kampuchea," she read.
It was a powerful moment for Mr Chhang, who has forensically archived evidence of the Khmer Rouge's crimes through his organisation The Documentation Centre of Cambodia for more than two decades.
"Well you know you have to accept that there are two sides of all us and even in the most difficult situations there is also beauty in it," Mr Chhang said.
"Look at her today, 38 years later, which is closer to my own mother, I can't imagine a mother doing that to any child in the world."
'Bitter pill to swallow'
Mr Chhang's relationship with the perpetrators he has investigated for decades can be hard to comprehend, allowing for both reconciliation and the pursuit against of justice against some of them simultaneously.
He has stood beside his tormentor, talked to her at length and shared laughter with her but is still deeply rocked by the court's decision to drop charges against her, calling it "a bitter pill to swallow".
The court, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, announced on Wednesday that Ms Chaem fell outside its scope of trying only the regime's senior leaders or those deemed most responsible for its crimes.
PHOTO: Youk Chhang with former Khmer Rouge tribunal defendant Im Chaem in Anlong Veng, Cambodia. (DC-Cam: Leng Ratanak, file)
The hybrid UN/Cambodian court, which mandates all legal teams have national and international counterparts, has faced a litany of political and financial scandals since it was formulated in 2006 and has thus far only convicted three defendants.
Recurring disputes have emerged between the international and national side of the prosecution team and investigative judges raising accusations that Cambodian lawyers have been pressured not to pursue certain suspects because of what their trials could reveal about members of the current regime.
Precisely this type of dispute has emerged again in the case of Ms Chaem.
In a statement outlining differences between its national and international sides, the office of the co-prosecutors revealed the extent to which the latter team believed she fell within the court's jurisdiction, arguing she had, among many other crimes, overseen a network of torturous security centres.
"Im Chaem also initiated construction at Spean Spreng dam and Prey Roneam reservoir and assigned many workers to Trapeang Thma dam. Thousands of individuals were forced to labour at these large irrigation projects and various other worksites under Im Chaem's responsibility in conditions amounting to enslavement."
The international co-prosecutor alleged she had committed crimes including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution, forced marriage, rape and enforced disappearances in roles assigned to her by the highest leaders of the regime.
In contrast, the national co-prosecutor deemed her not be one of the most responsible for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and thus outside of the court's jurisdiction.
Disputes like these represent one of several structural issues with the court that have slowed the judicial process at times to a crawl, exhausting the patience of many victims.
'Guilty as hell as far as I'm concerned'
Several suspects, including the regime's leader Pol Pot, foreign minister Ieng Sary and Ta Mok, the notoriously brutal zone commander who built the school where Ms Chaem read, died either without being tried or before a verdict was reached.
For Cambodian-Australian filmmaker Chhorn Bunhom, who escaped a similar slave labour camp as a 6-year-old after witnessing unspeakable acts of violence, seeing another suspect escape trial is a stinging blow.
Mr Bunhom said he had long supported the trial but couldn't see the point in spending so much money if in the end the suspects such as Ms Chaem could just walk away and deny they did anything wrong.
"In that respect, what the court is basically saying to me, [Bun]Hom, is that it never happened. Basically what it's saying is that a genocide didn't happen. That is more hurtful to me.
"It probably makes her feel better at night but it's not convincing me that she's not guilty."
But where the court has frustrated him, Mr Bunhom has found other ways to come to terms with the trauma that was trust upon him and his family by the sadistic regime.
In 2014, he released his documentary Camp 32, in which he tracked down the site of his childhood internment after a remarkable series of reunions and more than a decade of searching.
PHOTO: Filmmaker and Khmer Rouge labour camp victim Chhorn Bunhom scouts locations for a film on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in 2016 (ABC News: David Boyle)
While sites such as the S-21 torture centre in Cambodia are well known, at least partially because the chief of facility, Kaing Guek Eav Alias Duch, was convicted by the court, many slave labour camps filled with tens of thousands of people such as the one Mr Bunhom was held in remain undocumented.
Mr Bunhom is now working on formal recognition of the site while pursuing further film projects about the Khmer Rouge including a new short looking at the crime of forced marriage.
Mr Chhang has been a great facilitator of such efforts to record and engage with Khmer Rouge history through creative means, overseeing or supporting countless projects incorporating written records, art, film and music.
He is now pursuing his most ambitious project yet: construction of a world class university in Phnom Penh called the Sleuk Rith institute, dedicated to understanding the brutality that descended on Cambodia and understanding how to move forward from it, regardless of the obstacles that come with that journey.
"It's not a hit. I don't think survivors will be hit by this decision but rather make them stronger and realised they must stand on their own two feet and continue their journey for justice."
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