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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Memories of evil stir as Duch trial opens

Memories of evil stir as Duch trial opens

Memories of evil stir as Duch trial opens

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First prosecution of former Khmer Rouge leader gives many regime victims an uneasy look back into the past, but also a glimpse of hope.

Photo by:
AFP/POOL 

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, faces court Tuesday on the first day of his trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

VANN Nath, perhaps one of the Khmer Rouge regime's most famous survivors, has waited decades for the trial of his former tormentor, Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav.

As the landmark event began Tuesday, Vann Nath, who was one of only a handful to walk out of the torture centre after the regime was toppled in 1979,  said: "I have been waiting for this day for 30 years and now the day is here".

"Last night, I did not sleep well because I was thinking a lot about my time at Tuol Sleng," added Vann Nath, who was spared execution because of artistic abilities, which his jailors put to use painting portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

"I dreamed about going to the Khmer Rouge tribunal to join this hearing because it is very important for all people," he said.

For many victims, the opening of the trial at the UN-backed court marks the hoped-for end of a long wait for an explanation and an apology for their suffering.

"I lost all my relatives in the regime. I am an orphan," said Kuch Gnorn, 50, now a monk.

"I really want to know why the Khmer Rouge killed their own people. It makes me angry - so much violence in this Buddhist country of Cambodia," he added.

Francois Roux, the French lawyer representing the 66-year-old former maths teacher-turned-torturer, said his client, who is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, would like to answer his victims.

Kaing Guek Eav, who is better known as Duch, "would like to apologise to victims, but not today," Roux said after the hearing.

"He will apologise not only to victims of S-21 but to all Cambodians. He will explain everything, but ... in the future. So I make the request to victims, please, don't close the door yet."

Though largely procedural, with no witness testimony or statements from Duch, Tuesday's hearing still brought long-buried emotions to the surface for many in attendance.

Luch Bunthort, 54, from Kampong Thom province, who had travelled to the court, said: "I have been waiting for this hearing for  years. I never thought that it would happen. ... I lost three members of my family during the regime".

Later in the day, the sky above rained for the first time after a long dry season, which many interpreted as a portent of the sorrow opening up old wounds.

"Cambodians everywhere are crying," court spokesman Reach Sambath told the Post.

Dredging up old memories for the new trial, even in the name of finding closure, comes with attendant risks.

"I hope that survivors who do attend or who watch the hearings or read about them in papers understand that everything is not going to be solved [Tuesday]," said Sara Colm, of Human Rights Watch.

"This kind of hearing can re-open old wounds so ... I'm thinking about the victims, and I hope the beginning of the proceedings delivers justice for them in their minds and their hearts," she said, adding that proper support - from friends, family or professional organisations - was essential for victims.

But many observers still question what the trial will ultimately achieve.

"On the one hand, it is good that the trials are finally commencing. But why start with Duch, who was a cog, albeit a willing cog, in a machine created and ordered by others?" asked historian Philip Short, author of Pol Pot: History of a nightmare.

"And why try Duch when all the KR Zone secretaries, the district chiefs ... the local chhlorp leaders, and so many others whose hands are steeped in murder, are not going to face any kind of justice?  The politically imposed double standard is flagrant," he added.

For Short, the trials of [leaders] Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan will be far more important than Duch's trial, in that they - and particularly the first two - were in the top echelons of the leadership that created the KR machine.  

"Duch may cast light on how the machine operated. Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary, if they choose to do so, could cast light on why it operated that way. That said, I don't have any great hopes that either will reveal, except inadvertently, much truth about what they did," he said.

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