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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Duch to stand trial today as first cadre to face justice for Khmer Rouge crimes

Duch to stand trial today as first cadre to face justice for Khmer Rouge crimes


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BY MICHAEL HAYES

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

THREE DECADES AFTER

Photo by: Sovann Philong

... a legacy of brutality 

The communist Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in April 1975 and immediately began dismantling modern society in their bid to forge an agrarian utopia.

The regime abolished religion, schools and currency, and exiled millions of people onto vast collective farms. Clergy, the educated elite and, eventually, the regime's own cadre were targeted, and an estimated 1.7 million people died of starvation, overwork and execution before the Khmer Rouge were toppled in 1979. Tens of thousands more perished in the aftermath, as famine and civil war continued to ravage the country. But it is not until now that the regime's former leaders have been brought to court.

There is absolutely no way those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime can ever be adequately compensated for the pain endured, nor can any of the 1.7 million or more loved ones who perished during the three years, eight months and 20 days of KR madness ever be brought back to life.

These scars, so many angry, restless ghosts and the difficulty of how to deal with them are a permanent legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime.

But today marks the most visible beginning of a process that may result in some form of justice for those most responsible for the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge's murderous years in power.

At 9am this morning in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or Khmer Rouge tribunal as it is more informally known, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, is to take his place in the dock before five of the KRT judges to begin the initial hearing of his trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and the domestic charges under Cambodian law of premeditated murder and torture.

It is an event that has been delayed for decades by the hardnosed politics of the Cold War. It is an event that almost didn't happen because the number of people who were pushing for the creation of a trial was so pitifully small. (Seven years ago I was told there were about 10 people outside of Cambodia pushing for the trials.) It is an event that has taken years of wrangling over the actual existence and format of the tribunal. It is an event that is already surrounded by controversy with accusations of a flawed tribunal process plagued by corruption and misuse of funds.

But it is an event that must happen and one that offers the last best chance to understand how things went so terribly wrong in Cambodia so long ago.

"Duch's trial, and the trials that will follow it, are very significant.  These trials will be the first to try leaders of a communist regime for mass murder, besides the trials of the Dergue regime in Ethiopia. It will also show war criminals that they are never safe, even 30 years after they committed their crimes.  There is no statute of limitations on the prosecution of genocide and crimes against humanity," said Gregory H Stanton, executive director of Genocide Watch.

Duch headed the S-21 detention and torture centre in Phnom Penh, where more than 16,000 so-called enemies of the regime were tortured and then led to their executions. Only a handful survived.

The details of the crimes committed at Tuol Sleng are so horrific that they defy comprehension. Even worse, S-21 was just one of about 150 sites in a prison and

extermination network that extended over the entire country, a killing

machine that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Editor-in-Chief Michael Hayes and the Post's team of reporters and photographers brings more than 30 years of combined experience to provide readers with the most comprehensive coverage of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

"He was actually quite high in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy as the commandant of the central prison where the highest ‘enemies of the state' were tortured and executed," Stanton told the Post. "It is also significant because Duch reportedly intends to confess and tell the truth about his crimes, and his testimony will prove very significant for all the other trials of the tribunal."

So what does this trial mean for the Cambodian people?

It would be nice if it meant the beginning of the end of impunity for those who break the law. It would be great if it led to reforms of a judicial system that is perceived as biased towards those with power. It would be helpful if it added to the process of national reconciliation. It would be a blessing if it helped bring closure on the darkest chapter in recent Cambodian history.

All of these expectations may be a bit much to expect of the KR tribunal given the limitations placed on it by the political expediencies of those who are still fearful of the full story coming to light.

At the very least, it would be beneficial if Duch and his colleagues told the truth. That in and of itself would be a useful first step but is also one that remains to be seen. The good news is that we don't have to wait much longer to find out.

"Human justice will always be imperfect because it has to be dispensed by human beings.  But the ECCC, despite its imperfections, is still likely to do a very good job of trying the Khmer Rouge's top leaders and in dispensing justice to them.  The larger questions of restorative justice for Cambodians will have to be dealt with in other ways.  But the ECCC will make a historic contribution by revealing the facts about the Khmer Rouge regime, and will help future Cambodians and other people understand and refuse to deny those truths," Stanton wrote. 

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