Long-Delayed Justice in Cambodia

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Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty

Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav (Duch), 65, sits in the court room at the Extraodinary Chambers in the courts of Cambodia on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, November 20, 2007.

With his hands raised prayer-like in front of his face in a somphea, the most deferential Cambodian greeting, Kaing Guek Eav didn't look like a man who once governed a prison where some 16,000 men, women and children were imprisoned and later executed. Wearing a white polo shirt and with his graying hair neatly combed, the rail-thin 65-year-old appeared relaxed as he rose, pressed his palms together and addressed the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal on Tuesday at the first public hearing of a former member of Pol Pot's brutal regime.

Speaking in a clear but low voice, the man known to Cambodians by his revolutionary name, Duch, told the courtroom that he was there to seek release from detention ahead of his trial at the tribunal. "The reason I lodged this appeal is that I have been detained without trial for 8 years, 6 months and 10 days already," Duch said, adding that his lawyers would explain his appeal in detail.

The two-day hearing that ended Wednesday in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh was a watershed for Cambodia. With almost three decades having elapsed since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, some believed a tribunal would never take place, and that justice would not be served for the estimated 1.7 million people who died during the regime’s radical political and social experiment between 1975 and 1979.

More than 500 people — including survivors of the regime, ordinary citizens, scores of journalists and foreign diplomats — attended the opening hearing at the tribunal’s headquarters on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The sense of history was palpable. "I came here because I wanted to know what Duch would say," said Chum Mey, 77, one of only a dozen or so former inmates to emerge alive from Duch’s notorious S-21 prison and torture center. “If he would admit that he killed people.

Vann Nath, 62, another S-21 survivor and a well-known Cambodian artist, said he did not attend the hearing as Duch's appeal for release, eloquently argued by his U.N.-sponsored lawyers, made a mockery of the dead and those who narrowly survived. "Where was the U.N.?” he asks. “Where were the international judges and lawyers when I was in S-21? Where were the human rights groups to help me at that time?"

"The court should remember that Duch killed people without consideration — whether they were elderly or children. What he did every day during that time was slaughter," he added.

Duch, a former mathematics teacher before joining the Khmer Rouge, oversaw S-21 prison with fastidious attention to detail. The prison's harrowing records survive: Mug shots of thousands of inmates, records of forced confessions elicited under torture, and post-execution photographs, which the ever-paranoid regime sometimes required as proof that its enemies, real and imagined, had been dispatched.

But the issue before the court on Tuesday and Wednesday wasn’t the fate of Duch’s former prisoners, but his own detention without trial by the Cambodian military court, which arrested him in 1999, long before the tribunal took custody of him on July 31 and charged him with crimes against humanity and war crimes. Duch's two lawyers argued that their client's rights had been so violated by his more than eight years of incarceration that he should be released, or at least placed under house arrest, ahead of his trial — or compensated with a reduced sentence if found guilty.

The tribunal's prosecutors responded by arguing that the past actions of the military court have no bearing on the tribunal. Court officials announced Wednesday that a ruling on Duch's appeal would be made at a later date. Meanwhile, the tribunal will be busy in coming months: Lawyers for the four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders now in detention have already submitted similar appeals or are planning to do so, court officials said. The actual trials of the five suspects — Duch; Pol Pot's second-in-command Nuon Chea; Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, the regime's minister of social action; and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan — are expected to start in March or April next year.

Peter Foster, the tribunal's U.N. public affairs officer, said that Duch's landmark hearing evoked for some Cambodians attending the court a sense of wonderment that the Khmer Rouge leadership was finally being called to account. "After so long not believing it would ever happen, it took until this moment,” he says. “Now they see that there is no turning back."