PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — One of the regulars at the Friday night dinners hosted by the Chabad House in Cambodia’s capital is Phil Weiner — a friendly, easy-going American attorney with a strong Boston accent.
Before he came to Cambodia, Weiner, who is 64, was a law professor and an attorney, working mainly as a prosecutor on cases involving drugs and organized crime. He had been to Asia only once, as a tourist. Then the phone calls began. Seemingly out of the blue, he was being sought to work on behalf of a Cambodian government war crimes tribunal.
“They called me every day for a week with something new. The third time they called, they said there is a synagogue there, and it’s a Chabad,” Weiner recalls. “I thought, ‘If they’re looking for synagogues for me, it’s really serious, they really want me.’”
So he packed his bags and flew 30 hours around the world to Phnom Penh. For the last five years, Weiner has served as the chief of staff at the Investigative Judges Office of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
The tribunal, the investigative portion of which wraps up at the end of July, is a UN court tasked with bringing to justice the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal regime which between 1975 and 1979 was responsible for the death of almost a third of the country’s population.
In November, the tribunal sentenced two of the regime’s leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and the genocide of Cham Muslims and Vietnamese, Cambodia’s ethnic minorities. The defendants are currently appealing the conviction.
Until recently, Weiner’s job at the court was to interview witnesses. Speaking through a translator, he recorded the testimonies of former soldiers, survivors, and victims of sexual assault. Sometimes these interviews took a few hours; sometimes they took days.
“It’s almost unbelievable, the information that we received [from survivors],” Weiner said. “In Cambodia, you had mass killings of children, concentration camps, medical experimentation on human beings – similar to what the Nazis had done.”
“I was involved in the case of genocide against the Vietnamese. There is a statement from a witness that ‘No Vietnamese could be spared, not even a baby in a cradle,’” he said.
Weiner is not the only Jewish legal professional who has worked in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. A number of Jewish attorneys and interns participated in the trials as well – and Weiner invited them all to come to synagogue with him. Jews often get involved in war crimes tribunals because of the connection between the Holocaust and genocides elsewhere in the world, Weiner said.
While working in Phnom Penh, Weiner became friends with Martin Karopkin, a 72-year-old Jewish judge from New York who helped to set up the guidelines for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal between 2006 and 2008. The Cambodian tribunal was uniquely structured, and gave victims the right to provide personal testimony at the trial.
“In the American legal system, the victim is represented by an attorney. [But in Cambodia,] we gave victims a much broader role. We felt that many victims deserved a voice of their own at the trial,” Karopkin said.
In 2014, Karopkin returned to Cambodia to serve as a reserve judge at the trials. He says that as a Jew, it was important for him to be involved in bringing to justice the leaders of the Cambodian genocide.
“Frankly, it’s a sort of court that was carrying out the same kind of work as was done at Nuremberg,” Karopkin said of his decision to come to Cambodia. “My parents’ cousins were killed in the Holocaust… The Holocaust and the Nuremberg Tribunal are the guiding light to set the precedent for this kind of trial.”
Both Weiner and Karopkin also worked on the war crimes tribunals in the former Yugoslavia. Karopkin said the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal eclipses that one in scope.
“The size [of the trial] in Cambodia was gigantic by comparison to what I did in Kosovo. It’s one-third of the population, or 1.5 million people, who died from various causes during the Khmer Rouge period,” Karopkin said. “And it happened 40 years ago, which makes it hard to piece all the evidence together.”
And unlike the Nuremberg trials, in Cambodia only three of the regime’s senior leaders have been brought to justice.
Teaching and training
While in Cambodia, Weiner and Karopkin also volunteered to train Cambodian police and legal professionals.
The pair taught courses on criminal causation to Cambodian police detectives — a subject that they had never had any training on before, said Weiner, who is also a law professor in the United States.
“For example, if two people are fighting, one breaks the other’s leg, they put him into an ambulance, but on the way to the hospital the ambulance gets into a car accident and the patient dies. Is the person who broke his leg responsible for his death?” Weiner explained. “These are tough issues.”
Because Cambodian judges and police had never been trained on criminal causation, criminal responsibility in Cambodia has been decided arbitrarily, Weiner said.
Weiner and Karopkin also taught courses on judicial integrity, judicial independence, and conspiracy to Cambodian judges, detectives, law students, and police. And they’ve brought in dozens of books and textbooks on legal subjects — white-collar crime, basic criminal law, civil litigation. They helped build a small library for a law professor at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
“I took so many books back on my last trip, I thought they would charge me $150 because my luggage was overloaded. I had no luggage, just books. It was heavy but they didn’t say anything,” Weiner laughed. “I try to help as much as I can, because once we leave, I don’t know what help they’re gong to get.”
This summer, Wiener and Karopkin are preparing a training on how to interview sexual assault victims.
“I would like to bring in experts on these areas from the US or Canada, to teach them about interviewing rape victims,” Weiner said. “They’ve never had any training on interviewing rape victims.”
While working in Cambodia has been interesting, Weiner admitted that living in a developing country also presents its unique challenges.
“We had staff [at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal] with typhoid, dengue, and food poisoning constantly; we had people hit by cars. One of the judge’s wives was sick for a year. We’ve had everything,” he said. “In the other courts I’ve worked before, these types of incidents were rare.”
Living far from home, both Weiner and Karopkin found themselves at synagogue each weekend — more often than in the United States.
“A lot of it is also for community,” Weiner said. “We look forward to seeing each other Friday and Saturday, getting together for dinner, getting together outside of the synagogue. We are all so far away from home, most of us are away from our families — so the synagogue became our second home.”