Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Hearings begin in Khmer Rouge genocide trial

Tan Chhin Sothy / AFP/Getty Images
LINING UP: Cambodians gather for the trial of former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Khev Iev.

Los Angeles Times

A former official under Pol Pot faces charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder. The 1970s regime is blamed for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia.

Brendan Brady, Special to The Times
March 30, 2009

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia — The first Khmer Rouge leader to stand trial for the mass murder of Cambodians more than three decades ago faced his first question from the tribunal today: The court's top judge, Nil Nonn, wanted to know the background of the man who ran the regime's most notorious death camp.

Kaing Khev Iev, better known by his nom-de-guerre Duch, matter-of-factly told the tribunal he had been a teacher in Battambang, a province of Cambodia. He is expected to admit to a lot more over the course of his landmark trial.

Kaing, 66, was head of the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng prison, codenamed- S21, where more than 12,000 men, women and children were tortured before being executed in the nearby "killing fields" outside the capital city. He is one of five detained senior Khmer Rouge leaders believed to be the architects of the ultra-Maoist regime's fanatical rule in the late '70s under which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished from overwork, starvation and murder.

The charges: crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder.

While the trial opened formally last month, today marks the beginning of substantive hearings during which prison guards, survivors and family members of those brutalized in S-21 will be called upon to tell their stories. Others who suffered were present at the court to watch.

Orm Chanta's husband did not pass through S-21, but what he suffered was just as cruel.

Chanta, 69, witnessed her husband being buried alive by Khmer Rouge cadre after they shot him. His crime, they said, without elaborating, was being "a traitor to the regime."

Chanta said that his education and profession – a doctor – made him suspicious to the regime, which brutalized the entire population but particularly targeted those with money, an urban background and an education as they were seen as the antithesis of the regime's vision of an agrarian peasant society.

"I have for a very long time been determined to come today to see if the pain in my heart can heal," she said, bursting into tears.

Duch's trial has opened the door to official accountability, but only after years of political obstruction, judicial bickering, corruption allegations and funding shortages.

The Cambodian side of the hybrid court has sunk financially from a funding halt following allegations in July that national staff were forced to pay kickbacks to secure their jobs. The situation escalated this month when judges announced that the Cambodian side did not have enough money to pay salaries to nationals in March.

Cambodian court officials have denied the allegations, and a review made last September by a United Nations oversight body has yet to be made public.

But the tribunal's deputy director of administration, Knut Rosandhaug, was quoted in a report by a German parliamentary delegation that met with him as saying, "The United Nations would suffer from a loss of credibility if they'd support a tribunal which is characterized by corruption."

International officials have never raised such strong objections in public, however.

Brad Adams, head of London-based Human Rights Watch in Asia, and an early member of the negotiations with the government to establish a war crimes court, said the U.N. "has undermined the court's entire mandate" by not taking the Cambodian side to task.

On another front, observers have urged the Cambodian side of the court to demonstrate its independence by allowing further investigations to begin.

Canadian prosecutor Robert's Petit's move to add to the docket a handful of unidentified figures he describes as key enforcers was blocked by his Cambodian colleague, Chea Leang, a niece of the current deputy prime minister.

She has argued that additional prosecutions could prove destabilizing, overstretch the tribunal's limited resources and would run against the spirit of the 2003 U.N. treaty establishing the court, which called only for "senior leaders" of the regime and "those who were most responsible" to be tried.

Many senior government posts are currently held by former Khmer Rouge, and experts say the government fears a wider roundup could expose them to scrutiny. While facing stiff resistance, Petit has argued that expanding the court's reach would play a key role in validating its work.

Adams, meanwhile, has lost hope. "The court has become so flawed and its goals so limited that it doesn't stand a chance of providing a minimum amount of justice," he said.

The country is divided over whether additional high-level officials should be tried – with 57% in favor and 41% opposed, according to a recent poll. The decision, however, will come down to the leverage of Cambodian versus international officials.

Unlike the other figures in detention, Duch, now a born-again Christian, has acknowledged his crimes and asked for forgiveness.

But a full confession, which Duch is expected to give, would not put an end to the trial. According to the tribunal's rules, Duch cannot plead guilty – a confession will be treated as an element of evidence. Duch is also expected to argue in court that he was following orders from his superiors and would have been killed had he not obeyed.

This defense holds no weight for Chanta.

"Even if he says that he is sorry, it is still over (for those who died)," she said. "He lives while so many were killed."

The other, more senior, Khmer Rouge leaders investigated by the court are: Khieu Samphan, the group's head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was minister of social affairs; and Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue.

All four are old and ailing, and their trials are unlikely to begin until next year. They face a maximum of life imprisonment. Were they alive, the regime's former top leader, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, and military chief Ta Mok, "The Butcher", certainly would have been included on the docket.

Special correspondent Keo Kounila contributed to this report.

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