Tuol Sleng's survivors and their former tormentors alike say they have waited decades for today’s hearing and hope to find justice
AFP PHOTO/TANG CHHIN SOTHY & TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM ARCHIVES
Bou Meng, one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng prison, points out his picture at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh (above). Bou Meng is pictured third from right in the photo, which was taken in 1980, shortly after the liberation of the prison.
IN Cambodia, where the survivors of one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century often eke out a living on the margins of their rapidly changing society, one could question the wisdom of spending tens of millions of dollars on a hybrid tribunal.
Tasked with trying those who plunged the Kingdom into Year Zero, the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has struggled with spiralling costs and plummeting levels of public confidence, and it has been battered by allegations of corruption and political interference.
That has prompted some to argue the task itself is pointless, impossible and should be abandoned.
But after years of obfuscating and months of impenetrable investigations, the beginning of the end is in sight.
Today, the ECCC will finally begin the public process of holding former Khmer Rouge leaders to account for atrocities committed during the regime's 1975-79 stranglehold over Cambodia.
Kaing Guek Eav, the former cadre better known by his revolutionary name Duch, who oversaw Tuol Sleng prison, is to go on trial today, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
What will flow from
the trials in terms of
closure or reconciliation
is impossible to determine.
"I have waited 30 years for this trial," said 63-year-old Vann Nath, a painter who survived the Tuol Sleng prison camp (also known as S-21) by dint of his artistic skills.
"I am going to attend Duch's hearing and allow the judges to decide on his crimes. I will wait with impatience for their judgment."
Fellow S-21 survivor Chum Mey said he would attend in order to hear Duch explain the killing of prisoners.
"Even though there are accusations of corruption and criticism of the court by some people, this court doesn't stop yet but continues to work for victims' justice," he said.
Emotion will be high for not only survivors, but also perpetrators. Him Huy was the chief of the guards at Tuol Sleng. He had 10 guards under his command and is ready to tell the court what went on. He said that he felt he was a victim, too.
"I did not want to work at S-21 prison," he said. "I suffered, too, when I worked there. Duch ordered my relatives to be killed, and Comrade Hor, his deputy at S-21. We were guards of S-21, but we were executed like prisoners."
Although today's hearing deals only with procedural matters, it marks a welcome step forward, says Heather Ryan, a court monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative.
"The beginning of the Duch trial ... should go a long way toward reassuring the public that the court can meet its goals."
Of the atrocities committed during the KR era, those of Duch (whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav) are unquestionably the most graphically documented, said Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
HRW is no fan of the ECCC. Last weekend, the organisation issued a statement criticising the court for allowing political considerations to limit prosecutions of other former KR cadres.
"Despite this, and no matter what the flaws are in the tribunal, no matter what the delays have been, this is still an extremely important and historically significant day," Colm said.
The search for answers
For its part, the government denies interfering in the trial and maintains it has seen no evidence of corruption.
Although the prime minister once famously said it would be better to "dig a hole and bury the past in it", as the long-awaited trials finally come to fruition the government said understanding what happened would help with national reconciliation.
"This hearing is very meaningful for Cambodia to bring justice to KR victims even though there has been some criticism of this court," said Khieu Kanharith, minister of information and government spokesman.
"We will find the answers as to why there were large-scale executions under the Khmer Rouge."
On the eve of the trial itself, the mood is one of "anticipation and excitement". said Theary Seng, a civil party to the trial and the head of an organisation that facilitates victim participation in it.
"We've been thinking so much, talking so much about it ... but now to have actually a trial scheduled on paper, to have people actually coming, it makes it real," she said.
Of the five surviving accused, Duch's personal culpability is the clearest, his crimes the most well-documented and his attitude the most cooperative. His lawyer, French advocate Francois Roux, expects the trial will last up to three months, with judgement handed down by the end of the year.
"Duch will tell the court that he was a person who obeyed orders. He does not contest his personal responsibility," Roux said.
"Duch has told the co-investigating judges already that he was a perpetrator of crimes and, at the same time, a hostage of the [KR] regime."
It has taken 12 years of negotiations and controversies to get this far.
"Now, the real test begins to ensure that a fair trial is held that upholds justice and helps educate the Cambodian people and the world about what transpired during the Pol Pot regime," said David Scheffer, the former US ambassador for war crimes.
Public trials will, it is hoped, offer the people of Cambodia a chance to see the court and judge for themselves whether it meets their needs for justice and impunity.
But as historian David Chandler said: "What will flow from the trials in terms of closure or reconciliation is impossible to determine."