Cambodia’s Teflon Tribunal – ISN

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The first conviction against one of the lead perpetrators of mass murder under the Khmer Rouge was issued Monday, but questions remain about the tribunal process.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) , a hybrid UN-Cambodian war crimes tribunal sentenced ‘Comrade Duch’, a former Khmer Rouge chief jailer and executioner to 35 years in prison Monday for overseeing the deaths of thousands of people in the gristly ‘S-21’ detention and torture center during the height of the Pol Pot regime. An estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of the country’s population, were killed during the Communist Khmer Rouge era, as Pol Pot and his lieutenants sought to return the country to ‘Year Zero’, abolishing money and property and herding people out of cities and into massive labour camps. Across the country, an estimated 5 million survivors of the Khmer Rouge era remain, alongside thousands of Khmer Rouge officers and footsoldiers.

Relatives of victims wept as the verdict was handed out, but for some, the catharsis turned to anger and disappointment as it became apparent that Kaing Guek Eav, to give his real name, may serve no more than 18-19 years, by which time he will be 85-86 years old. He has already spent eleven years in jail, since Irish journalist Nic Dunlop discovered the executioner living quietly and under a pseudonym in rural Cambodia. The sentence took into account time already served, meaning that Comrade Duch could one day leave jail as a free albeit elderly man.

Dr. Sophal Ear is a Cambodian-American political economist and a survivor of the genocide. He is now a TED Fellow based in Monterey, California, and, stressing that these were his views alone, said to ISN Security Watch that “No sentence can be sufficient in this lifetime or the next. How do you sentence someone responsible for a place that killed up to 16,000 people?”

Speaking to media after the sentence was announced, prosecutor Chea Leang said that the prosecution team could “reserve out right to review”, after they had sought a 45 year term for Comrade Duch, but added that “This sentence is a clear message to those who commit crimes – those who took many lives cannot avoid justice”.  One judge, Jean-Marc Lavergne, issued a dissenting statement after the sentence, which concluded that “I am therefore of the opinion that in this case, the law does not allow the Chamber to sentence Kiang Guek Eav to more than 30 years imprisonment”.

During his 77-day proceedings, Duch admitted to heading s-21 – now a genocide museum – where the so-called worst “enemies” of the paranoid and murderous Khmer Rouge state were held and brutualised. More than 16,000 people passing through its gates before they were killed. Torture used to extract confessions included pulling out prisoners’ toenails and electrocution. Duch personally signed off on the executions, which he usually documented beforehand by photographing the accused, mugshot-style, before having them taken to a nearby orchard, one of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, to be murdered. According to the indictment against Duch, executioners threw victims to their deaths, bludgeoned them and then slit their bellies, or slowly bled inmates to death. Duch himself allegedly oversaw the atrocities, which included dropping children from the third floor of the building.

Unlike the other four defendants whose trials are due to take place next year, Duch was not part of the Khmer Rouge leadership and is the only major figure of the regime to have expressed remorse, even offering at one point to face a public stoning and to allow victims to visit him in jail. But he made a surprising request on the final day of his trial in November 2009, asking to be acquitted and freed, which left many wondering if his contrition was sincere.

The sentencing will likely bolster the view that the tribunal has been a slow, politicised process. Andrew Cayley, who was appointed international prosecutor late in 2009, has said that the court will move to bring the other four other defendants to trial by 2011. The accused are some of the most notorious figures from the Khmer Rouge leadership – Khieu Samphan, former head of state; Nuon Chea, known as ‘Brother Number Two’ and the regime’s chief ideologist; Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister; and Khieu Thirith, Ieng Sary’s wife and minister for social affairs under Pol Pot, who died in 1998 without ever facing trial. All are aged between 78 and 86, and are reportedly in poor health.

The possibility that the four will not see a day in court is real, and underscores some of the problems inherent to the tribunal throughout its existence, with allegations of political interference and kickbacks compounding the sheer slowness of the proceedings and the limited number of indictees in a country where tens of thousands of former Khmer Rouge members are at large over thirty years after the regime was felled by the invading Vietnamese Army. Attempts to have the caseload doubled to ten were dismissed by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member, who said “If the court wants to charge more senior Khmer Rouge cadres, the

court must show the reasons to Prime Minister Hun Sen”. The tribunal has been criticised in some quarters for failing to account for the role of US bombing runs in Cambodia during the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, which some historians allege facilitated the rise of Pol Pot, who was supported at various times by the North Vietnamese and by China.

Sophal Eal summed up the court so far as “the Teflon tribunal”, saying that “nothing sticks to it” . He described the verdict as “the first down-payment for the international community’s failure to deal with the Khmer Rouge in the first place”, with the tribunal likely to limp on, dependent on the financial backing of donor states.

In the hours after the first verdict was handed down, one of the three known survivors of Comrade Duch’s murder-camp stood on the steps outside the court and let his feelings be known. Chum Mey was tortured in S-21, while his wife and children were killed by the Khmer Rouge. “I ask if Cambodians are happy and the world is happy that millions of people died, a lot of money has been spent on the court – and the perpetrator is free in 19 years? I am not happy with that,”  he lamented.

Chum Mey’s  dismay may be deepened by an announcement on Tuesday by Duch’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, who told the AFP news agency: “We will appeal against the decision.”

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