via Khmer NZ
Published: Jul 23, 2010
by Martin Petty
The first U.N.-backed trial of a top member of the murderous Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields" regime will deliver a verdict next week that could bring some closure in one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
The Khmer Rouge's chief torturer and jailer, 67-year-old Kaing Guek Eav, is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for overseeing the deaths of 14,000 people as commander of Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng prison.
Better known as "Duch," he is widely expected to receive the maximum sentence on Monday of life imprisonment by a joint U.N.-Cambodian court set up to prosecute the ultra-Maoist regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths that wiped out almost a quarter of Cambodia's population from 1975 to 1979.
Any lesser sentence, analysts say, could trigger public outrage and further dent the credibility of a snail-paced and financially draining tribunal that has already been tainted by allegations of corruption and political interference.
"Cambodians will lose confidence in this court if Duch doesn't get the maximum sentence," said Pou Sothirak, a former Cambodian diplomat who is now a senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.
"This is a hugely important and historic day for Cambodia. If people don't believe justice has been served, they can't move toward any healing or closure," he said.
Chum Mey, one of only a few survivors of Duch's S-21 torture center and a key witness in the trial, said a lighter sentence would only prolong painful memories in a country where most families suffered losses at the hands of the regime.
"If he is not sentenced to life, there won't be any justice," Chum Mey, 79, told Reuters. "We have been waiting for more than 30 years. It's a really long time."
Duch, a former maths teacher and now a born-again Christian, insists he was following orders to avoid death at the behest of the late Pol Pot, a French-educated engineer who led the regime and sought to return Cambodia to a year-zero peasant utopia.
Duch asked for forgiveness and wept during his 17-month trial but said nothing of the Khmer Rouge's motives and why so many people were allowed to die of starvation, exhaustion and disease, or by horrific methods of torture and execution.
"I'm still angry, my relatives are all gone," said villager Som Rorn, who lost 12 family members to the Khmer Rouge, eight by execution and four by starvation.
Duch is the first of five of Pol Pot's former cadres indicted by the court. Facing genocide charges are former President Khieu Samphan, "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, a former Shakespeare scholar known as the "Khmer Rouge First Lady."
Regardless of Monday's verdict, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will probably face more criticism for its bureaucracy, big spending and lack of progress.
Since its establishment in 2005, the ECCC has spent $78.4 million of foreign donations without making a ruling and was last year granted a further $92.3 million for 2010-2011.
Many Cambodians fear that the ailing defendants could die before they see a courtroom and say the cases are so complex and politicized they may not even go to trial, which has fed allegations of high-level interference.
Mark Turner, an expert on Cambodia from the University of Canberra, said the composition and purpose of the tribunal was often in question and the government, which includes some former Khmer Rogue members, was in no hurry to speed up the hearings.
"One would suspect some people in government aren't too anxious to rake up the past," he said. "They might also be implicated. That's why this court has never been their priority."
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Editing by Jason Szep and Sugita Katyal)