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Lessons from the Duch trial

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Alex Hinton, author of Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, is the director of the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University in the US state of New Jersey. He was in Cambodia this month for the Genocide Education Project, run by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, and took time to offer his thoughts on the ongoing trial of Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.


S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav testifies in this file photo. AFP

What has surprised you most about Duch's testimony so far?
Although Duch indicated that he would cooperate with the court and wanted to express remorse, what surprises me most about his testimony is just how much he has said. At times it has even been difficult to get him to stop talking.

I'm not sure there has ever been a defendant at an international tribunal who has so willingly and expansively revealed details about the operation of a torture and extermination centre.

Duch has always been an enigma and, I think, remains one today even as he claims to tell all in the court. People are asking: Is he truly sorry? How could he do such things? Is he a monster or an ordinary man? What would I have done in his place?

Have we learned anything from the trial, particularly about the operations of S-21 or the regime generally?
While we have certainly learned some new things during the trial, such as the operation of M-13 [a detention facility in Kampong Speu province run by Duch] and the horrific way in which some prisoners were killed by having the blood drained from their bodies; we knew the basic outline of the story - much of it is there in David Chandler's book on S-21 [Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison], for example. The great contribution of this trial has been to fill in so many of the missing details in such an exacting manner.

Based on what's been said so far, how would you describe the legal strategy adopted by Duch and his defence team? Do you think it has been executed successfully?

The contours of the defence team's strategy - "I am responsible but not that responsible" - emerged during the first week of the trial. Even as Duch cooperated and made his apology, his lawyers argued that his responsibility was relatively minimal since he had to follow orders or be killed. As the trial has progressed, Duch has increasingly emphasised this argument in his own comments. He has had some success, though the prosecution and civil party lawyers have worked hard to highlight his direct culpability.

Switching gears, do you think the court's outreach efforts have been successful? And do you get the sense that Cambodians care about the tribunal?

If you had asked me this question at the start of the trial, I would have given you a different answer. But through the combined effort of civil society actors, the local media and the court itself, outreach is emerging as one of the success stories of the tribunal. Do most Cambodians know that the trial is taking place? Yes, even if they only know a bit about it. And do they care about the verdict? Yes, particularly those who lost relatives during Democratic Kampuchea. If this level of interest persists, the trial will have accomplished a great deal.

What are your thoughts on the ongoing dispute among members of the prosecution as to whether they should pursue additional indictments? Do you find credible the argument advanced by national co-prosecutor Chea Leang that further indictments could lead to instability and hinder national reconciliation?

For the sake of the court's reputation, I hope that one more set of indictments will be made. If not, the claims that the court is subject to political influence will rise to a crescendo. In any event, it is unlikely that additional indictments would lead to instability. I have heard some Cambodians, but not a lot, say that five is enough and they want to move on.

What, in your opinion, are the tribunal's prospects for future funding, and do you think those would be improved if the court devised a mechanism for resolving corruption allegations?
Can you imagine going to all of this trouble, raising the hopes of so many Cambodians, and then pulling the financial plug on the tribunal? That would be irresponsible to say the least, particularly given how much has been spent on the [tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia]. But there is little doubt that the corruption issue would be less salient if the allegations were directly addressed.

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY ROBBIE COREY-BOULET

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