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'Shocking and heinous' crimes

Photo by: AFP
Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav listens to a summary of the judgment against him yesterday.

Trying the Khmer Rouge


1979
The newly installed Heng Samrin regime organises the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in Phnom Penh, at which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary are charged with genocide. Both men are found guilty on August 19, with the tribunal sentencing them to death and ordering the confiscation of their property. The international community, angry at Vietnam for “invading” Cambodia in January, largely dismisses the PRT as a “show trial”.

1997
On June 21, then Co-Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh send a letter requesting assistance from the United Nations in trying those responsible for Khmer Rouge crimes. “Cambodia does not have the resources or expertise to conduct this very important procedure,” the letter reads in part. “Thus, we believe it is necessary to ask for the assistance of the United Nations.”

1999
Tuol Sleng prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav and Ta Mok, commander of the Khmer Rouge when the movement finally collapsed, are arrested and transferred to a military court in Phnom Penh. Foreign Affairs Minister Ieng Sary, Brother No 2 Nuon Chea (pictured), Head of State Khieu Samphan and Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith are arrested in 2007.

2003
The UN and Cambodia sign the Agreement Concerning the Prosecution Under Cambodian Law of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea at a ceremony on June 6 in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is represented by Sok An, while the UN is represented by Hans Corell.

February 2009
Procedural hearings begin in the first case at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, that of Tuol Sleng prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch. The following month, Duch delivers his long-awaited confession and apology before the UN-backed hybrid court, expressing “deep regret and heartfelt sorrow”. Four other suspects – Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith – are also awaiting trial.

September 2009
The tribunal announces a split decision from the Pre-Trial Chamber allowing investigations of five more suspects to go forward. Prime Minister Hun Sen lashes out at the ruling a few days later, warning that the approval of additional investigations and arrests risked sparking civil unrest that could claim up to 300,000 lives.

December 2009
Genocide charges are laid against Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea, marking the first time regime leaders have faced the charge in an internationally sanctioned court. Later in the month, genocide charges are also brought against Khieu Samphan (pictured) and Ieng Thirith. A closing order in Case 002 – during which all four leaders are set to be tried – is expected to be handed down in September 2010.

July 2010
The Trial Chamber finds Duch guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentences him to 30 years in prison. Because of time already served, the prison chief faces a maximum of 19 years behind bars.

TUOL Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav was sentenced to 35 years in prison at Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal yesterday. The verdict marks the first time a Khmer Rouge leader has been held to account in a court of law.

Taking into consideration time already served since his 1999 arrest, the accused – better known as Duch – faces roughly 19 years in prison.

Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn told hundreds of observers, court officials and victims that the “shocking and heinous” offences committed by Duch while he served as an administrator of Tuol Sleng, or S-21, had earned him a conviction for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

“The accused trained his interrogators to use physical and psychological violence,” Nil Nonn said. “Individuals detained at S-21 were destined for
execution.”

In explaining the decision not to hand down the maximum punishment, a life sentence, Nil Nonn said a number of mitigating factors had been considered, including Duch’s “cooperation with the chamber, admission of responsibility, limited expressions of remorse, the coercive environment in Democratic Kampuchea and the potential for rehabilitation”. The judges thus settled on a 35-year sentence, from which they deducted an additional five years due to the period of unlawful detention Duch served at a Cambodian military court between his arrest in 1999 and his handover to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2007.

Prisoners in the Cambodian penal system are eligible for release after having served two-thirds of their sentences, though United Nations court spokesman Lars Olsen declined to comment on whether this could be an issue in Duch’s case. Duch will remain at the ECCC detention facility pending negotiations to find “a suitable prison for anyone convicted at the ECCC”, Olsen said.

As with many other victims, 79-year-old former Tuol Sleng prisoner Chum Mey said he was angry that Duch had not received the maximum sentence.

“Duch’s cruel attitude remains, and I cannot accept this,” said Chum Mey, one of the few to survive a facility that claimed as many as 16,000 lives.

In a press release issued yesterday afternoon, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights acknowledged that the sentence “may appear to be a light one”, but praised the judges for recognising the fact that “rights are for all, even those individuals who are viewed by so many as reprehensible”.

“It may be hard for some victims and observers to reconcile the findings of the court with the sentence handed down,” CCHR president Ou Virak said in the statement. “However, problems persist in Cambodia with detention practices, and the reduction in sentence as a result of Duch’s previous illegal detention offers a good example to our domestic courts.”

Vann Nath, another Tuol Sleng survivor, offered a more prosaic take.

“It is like a life sentence for him because Duch is 68 years old already,” Vann Nath said.

The sentence was determined by a supermajority of the Trial Chamber, with French judge Jean-Marc Lavergne dissenting on the grounds that Cambodian law did not provide for non-life sentences of greater than 30 years. The judges were also divided on whether the statute of limitations on crimes set forth in the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code had expired by the time investigations began in Duch’s case, and thus ruled only on the basis of international law.

The verdict came after six months of testimony last year in which 55 witnesses – experts, survivors and former Khmer Rouge cadres – appeared before the court. Duch himself was a vocal participant throughout the trial, but was not given the chance to speak during yesterday’s hearing.

Dressed in a blue button-down shirt and slacks, Duch appeared to be listening attentively as Nil Nonn read out the summary of the judgment. Save for a glance at Bou Meng as Nil Nonn recalled the Tuol Sleng survivor’s testimony before the court, Duch stared emotionlessly at the judges throughout the hearing, bowing briefly to them as he exited.

Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang said the proceedings yesterday represented “a historic day for the ECCC” and for “the entire Cambodian people”. She added, however, that the prosecution would consider appealing against the length of Duch’s prison term after “reviewing the basis of this sentence over the coming days”. Prosecutors had requested that Duch be given a 40-year prison term.

A number of civil party lawyers, though not empowered to challenge the sentence, expressed surprise at its brevity. Civil Party Group 2 lawyer Silke Studzinsky expressed doubts about Duch’s apologies and remorse, saying they had been left “without any value” following his surprise request for acquittal during closing arguments in November.

Defence attorneys were unavailable for comment, though observers said Duch’s dismissal earlier this month of his international co-lawyer, Francois Roux, indicated that he likely planned to appeal in the event of a guilty verdict.

In the meantime, tribunal officials will continue their efforts to raise awareness about the court, particularly among young Cambodians with limited knowledge of the Khmer Rouge period. Court spokesman Reach Sambath said at a press conference following the hearing that 17,000 copies of yesterday’s verdict would be distributed at schools and villages throughout the Kingdom.

Standing under a cloudy sky outside the court afterwards, Reach Sambath said he had worked with his 14-year-old daughter the previous evening in composing his remarks, showing off her handwritten comments in the margins of his notes.

“I’m very, very proud, that the younger generation like my daughter had a chance to learn about the history, especially the dark history that affected the lives of their parents and grandparents,” he said.

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