The long-delayed Khmer Rouge Trial, once renowned for its glacial pace of progress,
appears to be finally stepping up a gear. The first suspect has been charged. The
first foreign defense attorney has registered. After thirty years, it appears Cambodia
is finally going to set the record straight.
But even with tangible progress in hand, questions linger over what is yet to come.
"We have certainly now moved to a new stage," said Helen Jarvis, head of
the ECCC press office. "The general mood at the court is very busy. We have
moved from a preparatory stage to fully operational one."
Kaing Khek Iev, the self-confessed teacher-turned torturer who headed the Khmer Rouge
prison S-21, was charged on July 31, by the co-investigating judges of Extraordinary
Courts in the Chambers of Cambodia (ECCC), with crimes against humanity.
The decision to charge the 62-year-old, who is better known by his infamous nom-de-guerre
Duch, has been called a milestone in the efforts to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge
leadership to justice.
Some are saying his testimony could prove key to the remainder of the trial, and
are wondering what his possible confessions could imply for future indictments; others
are asking how much meaning the ECCC's incarceration of Duch holds for a Cambodian
population, still waiting after 30 years, for justice.
"I have not seen any real explanation from the court regarding Duch's order
of provisional detention," said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Centre
of Cambodia (DC-Cam). "This is an historic moment for the victims. If we fail
to simplify events and engage the public it will be a terrible waste."
Duch has now been interviewed, charged, and detained by the ECCC. He has selected
two lawyers to defend him: Kar Savuth, an experienced Cambodian lawyer, and French
attorney François Roux. For Duch, who has been confined for the last eight
years in military prison, the move to the ECCC's detention facility will not mean
much of a change to his daily life. But psychologically, he is likely readying himself
for a major confession, said government spokesman Khieu Kannarith.
"When you give Khmer Rouge leaders a lawyer and ask them to present their case,
they will talk about a lot," he said. "But the Cambodian people - we don't
care about their arguments."
Roux has worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and was
a member of the defense team for the only man convicted in the September 11, 2001,
terror attacks in New York and Washington, Zacarias Moussaoui. On August 8 he became
the first foreign lawyer to be sworn in as a member of the Cambodian Bar Association
(CBA) - his application was approved by the CBA's council within three days of submission.
"We expedited the process as this case is very exceptional," said Ly Tayseng,
secretary-general of the CBA. "We did everything within our capacity to cooperate
with the ECCC, to get approval of his application, and ensure the rights of the defendant
Explaining the rights of the defense to a public that already consider Duch, and
the other as-yet-unnamed and uncharged, Khmer Rouge leaders guilty, will prove difficult,
said Thun Saray, president of local rights NGO Adhoc.
"Officially they have not announced the other four suspects' names," he
said. "But I think there would be huge public disappointment if the people who
everybody knows to have been top Khmer Rouge leaders were not charged."
Duch himself, in a 1999 interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review, fingered
Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok, who died in 2006, and Son Sen, who was executed
in 1997, as being responsible for the mass killings during the Khmer Rouge era.
After the Khmer Rouge regime lost power, Duch converted to Christianity and lived
in anonymity until his chance discovery by photojournalist Nic Dunlop in 1999. He
was apprehended days afterwards. In interviews with journalists immediately after
his discovery, Duch admitted that he had participated in the activities at Tuol Sleng.
He said he was sorry for the killings, and was willing to face an international tribunal
and provide evidence against others.
When later questioned by a government interrogator, Duch said that his role was limited
to obeying orders, and he would have been killed if he disobeyed.
Kannarith said that the Cambodian people wanted a trial to "fill a blank page"
in Cambodia's history and to prevent anything like the Khmer Rouge from happening
Duch's testimony could be key to the tribunal's ability to fill the lacunae in Cambodia's
historical record. Chhang has said that Duch could prove a vital link between the
cadres on the ground and the regime's top leadership.
But Kannarith remained sceptical as to whether even candid testimony from a key suspect
such as Duch would allow the tribunal, with its highly limited mandate, to fill the
"blank page" of Cambodia's history.
"Now we have the Khmer Rouge trial we can look at the fruit but nobody has right
to look at the tree, at the root, at the soil," he said. "Nobody looks
at why this grew, how the Khmer Rouge started - only if you look at everything can
you prevent this happening again."