In Cambodia, Pol Pot's Regime on Trial at Last

  • Share
  • Read Later
ADREES LATIF / AFP / Getty Images

Former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav — better known as "Duch" — sits in the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia on Feb. 17, 2009 at the opening of the long-awaited Khmer rouge trial

It was crowded at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday, as scores of foreign tourists visited the gated high school that was once a Khmer Rouge prison and execution center. Meanwhile, in a courtroom in the sprawling outskirts of the city, Tuol Sleng's former chief became the first member of Pol Pot's infamous regime to stand trial for crimes against humanity at the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts (ECCC) of Cambodia, more than 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Sitting behind bulletproof glass in a full courtroom, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, appeared relaxed as he jotted down notes while his lawyers argued for hours over the inclusion of witnesses and other details in the trial that is expected to last about three months. Duch, who is now 66, oversaw Tuol Sleng at the height of the Khmer Rouge regime's brutality in the 1970s, a waifish mathematics teacher turned zealous revolutionary cadre who ran the prison with maniacal attention to the details of the life and death of his prisoners. (Read "A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge.")

Duch did not speak during his first day in court, and full testimony is not expected to be heard until substantive hearings in March. But the classroom walls at Tuol Sleng speak for themselves, hung with the black and white mug shots of many of the 14,000 men, women and children who were imprisoned and tortured until they confessed to betraying Pol Pot's revolution. Later they were trucked to the outskirts of Phnom Penh where, blindfolded, they were dispatched standing at the edge of mass graves that would later be dubbed "the killing fields."

As historically important as Tuesday's initial hearing was — hundreds turned up at the court, including scores of international and local journalists — outside the confines of the ECCC, the start of Duch's trial seemed underwhelming to many people. Not one of more than a dozen people interviewed had tuned in to watch the live television broadcast of the trial's opening salvos, including two women selling entrance tickets to the Tuol Sleng museum, who didn't know that the prison's former director was even standing trial.

"I was too busy working to watch," said Klang Sokhan, 62, tending to the small shop opposite Tuol Sleng's gates where she peddles soft drinks and DVD documentaries about the Khmer Rouge to the hordes of tourists that visit the prison each day. "I am interested in the trial," she added, "and if you want to know whether Cambodian people are interested, let [the Khmer Rouge suspects] out of prison to walk down the street. Then there will be a prosecution." (Read TIME's 1979 cover story on the Cambodian genocide.)

Like so many of her generation, Klang Sokhan lost numerous relatives during the regime that ruled Cambodian from 1975 to 1979, when an estimated 1.7 million people died, including her son and daughter who were 5 and 4 when they succumbed to starvation. For Klang Sokhan, the complexities and the slow pace of the U.N.-backed tribunal proceedings do not assuage her anger — or her thirst for revenge. "The court is difficult to understand. It's too complicated. What people want is for them to die," she said of Duch and the four other Khmer Rouge leaders now in detention.

Though many Cambodians want to see justice done, most also have a limited understanding of the complex legal process the Khmer Rouge tribunal has become since it was proposed more than a decade ago. Negotiations between the Cambodian government and the U.N. to establish the hybrid court, which includes national and international judges and elements of international and domestic law, took years to hammer out, and on more than one occasion had many believing that the tribunal would never take place. Recent research conducted by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that of 1,000 Cambodians interviewed, fewer than one in 10 knew that five regime suspects have been awaiting trial. And only 3.3% of respondents could name the court's five detainees: Duch, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, Sary's wife, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, former "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, and the regime's former head of state, Khieu Samphan.

Nevertheless, the researchers also found that 90% of respondents said that members of the Khmer Rouge should be held legally responsible for their crimes. Many, including Vann Nath, a nationally renowned painter who survived Tuol Sleng because Duch put him to work rendering portraits of Pol Pot, hope that Duch's appearance in court means the beginning of that long-delayed accountability. During a break in the hearing, Vann Nath said he had waited a long time to see his old jailer on trial. "When he was in power, he was brutal, I was afraid to look at his face. Now I look at him, and he is an old man," Vann Nath said of Duch's appearance. "It has been a long time to wait... and not just for me."

Read about the genocide's influence on Cambodian graphic artist.

See pictures of a recent dispute over an ancient temple on the border Thailand and Cambodia.