Global Policy Forum

Trial Begins for Khmer Rouge Leader


By Seth Mydans

New York Times
February 16, 2009

The first trial of a senior Khmer Rouge cadre opened Tuesday, 30 years after the end of the brutal Communist regime that took the lives of as many as one-fourth of Cambodia's population. The first defendant is Kaing Guek Eav, 66, better known as Duch, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng prison and torture house, which sent at least 14,000 people to their deaths in a killing field. The purpose of Tuesday's hearing is to address procedural issues before court sessions begin next month.

Duch (pronounced DOIK) confessed to journalists before his arrest nine years ago that he had committed atrocities, but said he had been acting under orders and would himself have been killed if he had disobeyed. Known for his brutality, he is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, and with murder and torture in his prison, known as S-21. Four senior Khmer Rouge officials who were in a position to give those orders are also in custody, but court officials say their trials may not start until next year. They are Nuon Chea, 82, the movement's chief ideologue; Khieu Samphan, 76, who was head of state; Ieng Sary, 82, the former foreign minister; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, 75, a fellow member of the Khmer Rouge Central Committee. The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Many Cambodians say they fear that some of the defendants may also die before they are brought to trial, and the tribunal has been providing them the best medical care Cambodia has to offer. The trials are being held by a hybrid tribunal supported by the United Nations that includes Cambodian and foreign judges and prosecutors in an awkward legal compromise that has drawn criticism from human rights advocates and legal scholars. The chief concern is that the Cambodian members of the tribunal will not be independent of their government's political agenda. Questions have already been raised about the Cambodian co-prosecutor's reluctance to recommend further indictments. Foreign and Cambodian analysts say the government, fearing that a widening circle of defendants could reach into its own ranks, wishes to limit the number of those being tried, harming the tribunal's credibility. "We wish to see this tribunal for at least these five, and this is the minimum of the minimum," said Kek Galabru, a leading Cambodian human rights campaigner. "A lot of people ask: ‘Why only five? Why only five? Why only five?' " In addition, the United Nations has investigated allegations of corruption among the Cambodian members of the tribunal. The trial is supported by donations from other nations, and further payments are being delayed pending a resolution of these questions of corruption. David Chandler, the author of "Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison" (University of California Press, 1999), said a flawed trial would be better than no trial at all. "These guys should have to finally face some of the people and some of the evidence of what they did," he said. "It doesn't seem right that they just die in bed, tending to their chickens." In a fanatical attempt to create a pure peasant society, the Khmer Rouge turned their country into a giant labor camp, evacuating cities, banning commerce and religion, and trying to exterminate the country's educated class. From 1975 to 1979 at least 1.7 million people were executed or died of overwork, starvation, torture or untreated disease. The Khmer Rouge left behind an eviscerated and traumatized society, and some human rights advocates hope the trial can bring a measure of closure.

A survey of 1,000 Cambodians last year by the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, found that even after three decades, the traumas and hatreds persisted. In face-to-face interviews, nearly half the respondents said they were uncomfortable living close to former members of the Khmer Rouge. Two-thirds said they wanted to see former cadres suffer in some way. Forty percent said they would take revenge themselves if they had the opportunity. Chum Mey, 77, who is among only a handful of people who survived Tuol Sleng, said he still feared Duch and was unable to look him in the eye at a pretrial hearing in November. In the hearing room, he said, Duch behaved with the same air of confidence, disdain and command that had characterized his tenure as prison chief. "They tortured me for three months," Mr. Chum Mey said, recalling his time as a prisoner. "They beat me. They removed my toenails. They gave me electric shocks in my ear — kup-kup-kup-kup, it sounded like a machine in my head, and my eyes were like burning with fire." He is on the witness list to testify against Duch. "I want to stay alive to give evidence," he said. "Because I survived the Khmer Rouge, and if I die before the trial, what was the point of surviving?" In an innovation, dozens of victims have enrolled as civil parties to the case. They have grouped themselves by ethnicity or by the nature of their complaints and will be permitted to demand symbolic damages. One of them is Sok Chear, 42, an office worker whose father died under the Khmer Rouge. "We want to ask their leaders: ‘Who ordered this? Why did you kill Cambodian people? For what?' " she said. But not all Cambodians want to relive their traumas, which psychiatrists here say may be reactivated by the trial. One of them is Ms. Sok Chear's sister. "She says the government is finding peace for the people," Ms. Sok Chear said. " ‘Why do you want to make trouble again? They killed our father already. Now let's just forget it.' "

The trial, in a former military headquarters half an hour outside the city, is taking place in a strange social vacuum. This is a nation that has tried, in the words of Prime Minister Hun Sen, to "dig a hole and bury the past." Its traumas lie beneath the surface of daily life, and the opening of the trial has drawn only moderate attention here. The Berkeley study found that 85 percent of respondents had little or no knowledge of the tribunal. It found that their main concerns were jobs, services to meet basic needs, and food. When asked what the priorities of the government should be, only 2 percent said justice. For many in the younger generation, the Khmer Rouge atrocities are already ancient history. "Honestly, we don't pay attention to these things," said Ung Suchida, 24, a waitress. "They are already old. Some people, they are interested. But not me."

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