A Change of Guard

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Saturday, 28 November 2009

One man stands to pay for Cambodia's crimes

The Age, Australia
November 28, 2009
Cambodians queue to attend the trial of the Khmer Rouge chief jailer, Duch, who is now awaiting sentencing.

Cambodians queue to attend the trial of the Khmer Rouge chief jailer, Duch, who is now awaiting sentencing. Photo: Reuters

There is anxiety that delays and interference will spell the end of the Khmer Rouge trials.

IN COURT, the high school maths teacher Kaing Guek Eav is a meticulous note-taker. Bespectacled and neatly dressed, he records impassively each of the horrific accusations made against him.

He is unemotional, inscrutable. When he speaks, he is deferential and polite.

The torturer, the mass-murderer he was to become is not apparent.

But they are the same man. Under his revolutionary name, Duch, Eav ran the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng jail. Enemies of the party were brought there to be tortured - shocked, beaten, mutilated - before being bludgeoned to death at the nearby killing fields.

While he confessed this week: ''I am solely and individually responsible for the loss of at least 12,380 lives,'' Duch then confused the court on the final day of his trial when he asked to be acquitted and released. The court ordered that he remain in custody.

With his seven-month hearing now concluded, and he awaiting a sentencing decision early next year, Comrade Duch holds the dubious distinction of being the only person ever to stand a full trial for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

And, with 30 years passed since the regime was toppled, it is possible that he, alone, will face justice for the crimes of a regime that killed more than 1.7 million.

The Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts of Cambodia - the hybrid international/Cambodian court established to hear the Khmer Rouge trials - is slated to try four other regime officials, all more senior than Duch.

But those four are ageing and in ill health and it is a very real possibility they may not live long enough to complete their trials.

And with corruption allegations hanging over the court and signs of interference, it is possible the chief architects may escape ever being brought to account.

Comrade Duch was a prison boss, not a party leader. He followed, to the letter and beyond, his brutal orders to ''smash'' inmates.

Some of those who gave the orders are to face court next.

Nuon Chea, or Brother Number 2, was the second-in-command. Ieng Sary was foreign minister and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the minister for social affairs. Khieu Samphan was the titular head of state. The youngest of these defendants is 77, the men are seriously ill.

The court's UN administrator, Knut Rosandhaug, said it would be mid-2011 before the trial of the four, Case Two, can be heard. It will likely be "2014, maybe 2015", before it is concluded.

Court monitor Heather Ryan from the Open Society Justice Initiative told The Age it was a real possibility some, or all, might die before then.

"It's not inconceivable given the age of the accused. For these people to face justice, they need to survive at least another 3½ years. … I think it would be exceptionally unlikely that all of them would survive that long."

The four are the most senior officials known to still be alive. Pol Pot died in 1998.

"Case Two is the most important," the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, said. "These were the leaders, none of them have apologised, none of them have asked for forgiveness, none of them speak

"How long those defendants live is up to God. But I never wish them dead, never. I want them to face the court, to answer for what they have done."

But other concerns hang over the court.

There is anxiety that the Government is interfering, refusing to co-operate with inquiries and trying to stifle further investigations it might find uncomfortable.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former low-level Khmer Rouge cadre, believes more charges could lead to civil war. "I wish the court would have a budget shortfall as soon as possible," he said.

A report this week from the Open Society Justice Initiative found Cambodian court staff were refusing to issue summons to witnesses who hold senior government posts.

And investigations into another five Khmer Rouge leaders, believed to include senior government figures, have been stifled by the Cambodian side of the court.

"It seems that there are efforts being made to protect people from having to be involved," Ms Ryan said.

Cambodians, who are naturally distrustful of courts through domestic experience, have embraced the court and the opportunity for justice it offers. Hundreds filled the public gallery every day of the Duch trial.

Duch will have just one more day in court, next year, when he will learn his fate.

Who will follow him into the dock is unknown.

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