AFTER months of testimony, years of investigation and more than three decades since the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge tribunal will announce a verdict on July 26 in its landmark first case.
The court’s Trial Chamber judges are set to rule in the case of former Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who stands accused of homicide, torture, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Substantive hearings in the case began in March of last year, with closing arguments finishing in November.
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley said the verdict would be “of enormous historical and judicial significance for this country”.
“The first case is of exceptional importance, because for the first time within a judicial forum, these crimes have been recognised,” Cayley said, adding that Tuol Sleng represents “the absolute centre of evil” under the Khmer Rouge.
UN court spokesman Lars Olsen said Monday that the judges had yet to say when decisions about reparations and challenges to civil parties would be announced.
Chum Mey, a Tuol Sleng survivor who testified tearfully before the court in June, expressed hope that the verdict would allow victims to “reduce the suffering they have carried for 30 years”. Life imprisonment, Chum Mey said, would be the only acceptable sentence for Duch.
“I want the court to sentence Duch to life in prison, and I think I speak not only for me, but for other victims and civil parties,” Chum Mey said.
Vann Nath, another Tuol Sleng survivor who is currently struggling with health problems, said Monday that he was anxious to hear the verdict, but had less explicit expectations.
“I want justice to be done, but the decision is for the court, so we will have to wait and see,” he said.
During closing arguments in November, prosecutors called for a 40-year prison sentence for Duch. In declining to pursue a maximum penalty of life in prison, they cited as mitigating factors the unlawful detention that Duch served in a military court from 1999 to 2007, as well as his “general cooperation, limited acceptance of responsibility, his conditional remorse and the possible effect it may have on national reconciliation”. Near the end of closing arguments, however, Duch and his Cambodian co-lawyer, Kar Savuth, shocked the court by asking for an acquittal and a release from detention.
Cayley declined to say Monday what the prosecution was hoping for in terms of a penalty, though he said that Duch’s surprise bid for acquittal “should aggravate his sentence”.
“It actually doesn’t help him at all, because I think it basically cuts against his claims of remorse,” Cayley said. “His remorse should not be taken seriously.”
Kar Savuth said Monday that rather than diverging from one another in strategy, he and international co-lawyer Francois Roux had merely been arguing before the hybrid court on the basis of Cambodian and international law, respectively.
“During closing arguments, some people thought that my colleague, Francois Roux, and I had different views regarding the case of our client, but actually, we divided the work so that I was arguing about Cambodian law and he was arguing about international law,” Kar Savuth said. Under Cambodian law, Kar Savuth added, Duch cannot be held responsible for crimes ordered by his superiors, though he may be accountable for these crimes under international law.
Anne Heindel, a legal adviser at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said this explanation made little sense.
“I think it was clear from everything that [Kar Savuth] said, and Roux’s reaction, that this was not a decision to split the work between them on that basis,” she said.
As the judges work to finalise their decision, Heindel added, they will be forced to confront a number of factors beyond the questions about Duch’s culpability and remorse that were raised in November.
“Everyone seems to think about guilt or innocence, but there’s so many things that they’re going to have to delve into in this judgment,” Heindel said, noting the need to clearly define the crimes for which Duch is convicted and to examine relevant precedents from other international tribunals.
Olsen said these considerations, as well as decisions about civil party reparations and translation issues, had contributed to the eight-month gap between closing arguments and a verdict that promised to be an “important moment”.
“The court is wary of the fact that a lot of people are waiting for a verdict and justice to be done, and it’s working as fast as it can,” he said.