TO the right is the face of a survivor, photographed yesterday, one of the few who made it out of Tuol Sleng, or S-21, alive. In July of last year, Bou Meng described for the Khmer Rouge tribunal the months he spent at the secret torture facility – how he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks during interrogation sessions, and how he was spared because of his ability to paint 3-metre-high portraits of Pol Pot, a task he carried out under the watchful eye of commandant Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.
This morning, the tribunal is set to hand down its first verdict, making Duch the only member of the regime so far to be held to account for the nightmare that saw nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s people lose their lives due to overwork, sickness, starvation, torture and execution.
Robert Jackson, head of the United Nations Emergency Aid for Cambodia following the ouster of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, called the Khmer Rouge reign of terror “the greatest human tragedy of the 20th century”, and it is clear that many Cambodians are still struggling to overcome the Khmer Rouge years. Across the country, the estimated 5 million survivors still living, are frequently reduced to tears when asked to discuss their experiences.
Though never touted as a cure-all for this trauma, the tribunal carries the hopes of millions who have waited for decades to see the regime’s senior leaders held accountable. Critics have accused the court of falling victim to delays, corruption and political interference, but it is undeniable that today’s proceedings represent a landmark in Cambodian history.
Over six months of hearings last year, Duch expressed contrition for his role as head of Tuol Sleng, but claimed he was only following orders from his ruthless superiors.
Though many saw his testimony as selective and self-serving, he cooperated with the court and discussed the inner workings of his prison at length. Essentially pleading guilty, he offered at one point to submit himself to public stoning, and asked that his victims be permitted to visit him in prison.
All of this was undermined in stunning fashion during closing arguments in November, however, when Duch asked to be released. Prosecutors had earlier demanded a 40-year prison term.
It remains to be seen what penalty the judges deem appropriate for the inscrutable former cadre, and whether it will be enough for the millions who suffered under the Khmer Rouge.