Victims attend chief torturer's trial in Cambodia


PHNOM PENH – The chief Khmer Rouge torturer yesterday went on trial for crimes against humanity, the first senior Pol Pot cadre to be tried by the Killing Fields court three decades after the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians.

Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the ex-commandant of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, did not address the court, but sat impassively as lawyers haggled over procedural matters.

Hundreds of victims, including saffron-robed Buddhist monks who were persecuted during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era, packed the public gallery, reacting with anger and relief at the sight of 66-year-old Duch in the dock.

“This is the day we have waited for for 30 years,” said Vann Nath (63), one of a handful of survivors from S-21 where at least 14,000 “enemies of the revolution” were tortured and killed. Only 12 inmates of the jail survived.

This week’s hearings will lay the groundwork for a full-blown trial in March, when Duch and survivors are expected to testify.

Duch, now a born-again Christian, has expressed remorse before facing the joint Cambodian-UN tribunal, set up to prosecute “those most responsible” for one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century. “Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims and the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly,” French defence lawyer Francois Roux told reporters at the court outside the Cambodian capital.

The trial is a landmark for the strife-torn country where nearly everyone lost loved ones in the violence, starvation and disease that followed Pol Pot’s dream of an agrarian utopia.

It also ends a decade of wrangling over jurisdiction and cash at the tribunal, which had left many Cambodians wondering if Pol Pot’s surviving henchmen would ever face a judge.

“Today is history and they hope the court will bring them justice,” said Hong Kim Suon, a lawyer representing victims.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the joint tribunal is known, has been called an experiment in international justice, with domestic and foreign judges working side-by-side to try to ensure its independence. But critics say its integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference over who to prosecute.

“Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people,” said Sara Colm, Cambodian-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Four other Khmer Rouge cadres have been charged but a bid to go after more suspects was brushed aside last month by the tribunal’s Cambodian co-prosecutor, who said it would not help national reconciliation. Cabinet spokesman Siphan Phay denied any meddling and said the government wanted to complete the trials of the five people already facing charges before going after other suspects.

“We have never said we opposed anything, but let’s finish these first,” he said. – (Reuters)