The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Justice in Sight for Khmer Rouge Victims
By MARWAAN MACAN-MAKAR / IPS WRITER Friday, February 13, 2009

BANGKOK — An experiment in international justice finally gets under way on February 17 when a war crimes tribunal begins in Cambodia to prosecute the notorious jailer of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

The presence of Kaing Khek Eav, or Duch, at the official opening of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) marks the end of a 30 year wait by Cambodians who survived the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which held the South-east Asian country under its grip from April 17, 1975 to January 16, 1979.

Visitors look at a glass stupa memorial containing thousands of skulls and human bones of people killed on the summit of Wat Phnom Sampeau in Cambodia's Battambang Province. About 10,000 are believed to be sent to their deaths in the hilltop caves, the site to one of the many "killing fields" in Cambodia. (Photo: Reuters)
Duch was the chief jailer of Tuol Sleng, or S-21-, as it was known by the extremist Maoist group. Only seven people came out alive from S-21, a high school in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison to interrogate any civilian, including children, who were considered enemies of the Khmer Rouge.

Between 12,380 to 14,000 people imprisoned in Tuol Sleng were tortured and killed.

Duch and S-21 have come to symbolize the scale of war crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period, when close to 1.7 million people, or nearly a quarter of that country’s population at the time, were either executed or died due to forced labor or from starvation.

Duch has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and committing murder and torture under Cambodian law by the investigating judges of the Phnom Penh-based ECCC, which is a mixed tribunal, involving local and international judges, and is located within the Cambodian justice system.

Four more senior and influential leaders of the genocidal regime have also been arrested and charged for committing similar crimes as Duch. They include Nuon Chea, who was the second-in-command to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and known as "Brother Number Two" within the Khmer Rouge hierarchy.

The others are Ieng Sary, deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Pol Pot’s regime, Ieng Thirith, minister of social affairs, and Khieu Samphan, the president of Democratic Kampuchea, as the country was known during the Khmer Rouge years.

"This case is an experiment in the courts of international justice because it is a hybrid," says Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative. "No court has had this level of domestic participation."

"A lot of people looking for international justice will be looking to see if this court succeeds," added the Phnom Penh-based Ryan during a discussion of the tribunal at the Bangkok-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. "We are hoping that this trial will help bring Cambodia’s system of justice up (to international standards)."

This hybrid court was created after years of tough and trying negotiations between the United Nations and the Cambodian government. It marked a departure from international tribunals investigating war crimes such as the one looking into human rights violations committed during the war in former Yugoslavia, which was held in The Hague, with only international jurists and lawyers given a part.

"The mixed tribunal model is seen as a way to provide full national participation and involvement in the trials while at the same time ensuring international standards and participation," states the public affairs section of the ECCC. "There are Cambodian judges and foreign judges, Cambodian prosecutors and defense lawyers and foreign prosecutors and defense lawyers."

In addition, the special tribunal will also throw its doors open for Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge oppression to be parties to the legal proceedings. Victims who "suffered physical, psychological and material harm" qualify to be part of this unprecedented move in international law as complainants or as civil parties.

"The goal of civil party participation is to allow victims to present their views and contribute to the proceedings with the aim of making the court more meaningful to the population and to promote healing and rehabilitation," states an ECCC background note.

"Unlike domestic Cambodian law, where civil parties are entitled to apply for monetary compensation or reparations, the ECCC Internal Rules provide that civil parties are entitled to ‘moral or symbolic’ reparations only,'' the note states.

The ECCC’s investigating judges have already accepted 28 civil parties for Duch’s trial, while a further 66 applications are pending. The trial court is due to rule on how many more will be permitted when the initial hearings get underway on February 17.

"The initial hearings will be for one or two days. The substantive hearings will be in mid- to end-March," says William Smith, the ECCC’s international deputy co-prosecutor. "Sixty witnesses will appear in the case for the defense and the prosecution."

"What makes Duch interesting is not what he did during the Khmer Rouge, but what he did since," says Richard Rogers, ECCC’s officer-in-charge of the defense support section. "The fact that Duch has confessed and showed remorse makes him very, very unique."

"He has made a personal transition that is compelling," adds Rogers. "What is the appropriate sentence for a man such as Duch?"

Such a transformation, nor admission of guilt for the war crimes committed, is far from the case for the other four Khmer Rouge leaders who are awaiting trial. They have denied the atrocities committed during their years in power.

Similar denial has marked out men like Sou Met and Meah Muth, who were members of the Khmer Rouge military hierarchy but not holding any senior ranks at the time. Today, both are senior officers in the Cambodian army.

But three figures who personified the scale of evil during that dark period of Cambodia’s history will not be going before the courts. The one-legged Ta Mok, known as ‘The Butcher’, and who purged Cambodian cities of their inhabitants, died in July 2006. 

Also on that list is Pol Pot, the leader of the extremist movement who was bent on wiping out the country’s culture and its past in his single-minded drive to create an agrarian utopia. He died in 1998.

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