Cambodia this week saw closing arguments in the trial against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, the 67-year-old former commandant of the infamous Khmer Rouge torture prison known as S-21. Although not a top leader in the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK), Duch’s role as head of the secret police force that operated out of the former schoolhouse also called Tuol Sleng is seen as central to the regime’s operation. More than 12,000 people were killed at S-21. Twelve, total, survived.
Duch has repeatedly claimed full responsibility for the deaths of all S-21 victims. He stood accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder. Since the beginning of his trial in February, he has apologized repeatedly for his role in the regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979. Duch’s tearful expressions of remorse during a May 2008 visit to Cheung Eck, the infamous former orchard known as the Killing Fields, made international news.
Duch confounded the court on Friday by asking to be acquitted and released.
Held in the building specially constructed to house the United Nations-backed court, and presided over by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – a Cambodian court with international participation – the trial marks the first in the long-awaited Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
The first of five cadre to face trial, Duch’s central role in the regime has been compared to Adolf Eichmann’s in the Third Reich. The other four regime officials awaiting trial each held positions senior to Duch’s: Nuon Chea, known as Brother No. 2, was the DK’s deputy secretary and Duch’s immediate superior; Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, were the foreign minister and minister for social affairs, respectively; and Khieu Samphan was the titular head of state. All are more than a decade older than Duch, and gravely ill. Many fear that they will not live to stand trial. The earliest second ECCC case would not begin before 2011.
Duch has repeatedly stated that, despite responsibility for his crimes, he lived in fear of his superiors, and claims to have never participated directly in the interrogations, torture or executions for which his facility became notorious. The prosecution of the case, hampered by poor coordination and the resignation of a string of attorneys, did not challenge the claim that Duch remained uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of the infamous prison. Critics of the prosecution have charged that Duch could not have maintained authority over the facility without direct participation in interrogations or other activities. The defense has acknowledged Duch’s “broad authority” over the prison.
A 40-year sentence, likely a de facto life sentence, has been requested by the prosecution. A verdict is expected in early 2010. The ECCC’s five-judge panel – three are Cambodian and two are foreign – requires the agreement of at least four members for a verdict to pass.
Duch was arrested in 1999, when he was working as the head of education in the Samlot district in Western Cambodia. He was going by the name Hang Pin, but had repeatedly given interviews and quotes to the press under his Khmer Rouge moniker and acknowledging his role in the murderous regime.
Pol Pot, the leader of the regime, reportedly died of a heart attack in 1998.
Duch is represented in the ECCC by Francois Roux, who previously defended four cases of genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and was a member of the defense team for Zacarias Moussaoui, implicated in New York’s September 11 attacks.
Co-prosecutor William Smith’s closing arguments demanded the courts hold Duch accountable for “unrelenting brutality,” and described the amputation of fingers and toes, the murder of children and the forcing of prisoners to eat their own excrement. These interrogation and torture tactics were carried out under Duch’s orders, the prosecution stated.
In requesting a 40-year sentence, Smith removed ten years from his original request: five for Duch’s cooperation and five for time served, he explained. Some Khmer Rouge regime survivors have charged that 40 years is not enough, and that Duch should be put away for life.
The Khmer Rouge Tribunals have been plagued by numerous problems since their commencement, including massive funding shortfalls, repeated charges of corruption, governmental interference, questions about the relevance of the term “genocide” to the mass killings, and that ethnic minorities originally targeted by the DK, unable to afford travel to Phnom Penh, have been left out of the tribunal process entirely. Additionally, for close to a decade, the UN and Cambodia could not come to a firm decision about who would control the courts. This was finally resolved in 2005, and the ECCC was established.
Some Cambodians have expressed fear of or disinterest in the proceedings. Many former DK officials still live public lives under no pseudonyms. Some warn the press of retribution if further arrests are made. Khmer Rouge ties to the current government – as high up as Prime Minister Hun Sen – have been established. Hun Sen claims to have severed ties in 1977 and says he did not participate in the Pol Pot-led regime.
When a foreign ECCC prosecutor moved to make further arrests last spring, the Cambodian prosecutor opposed the bid, citing a popular demand for national reconciliation. Hun Sen released a public statement in March warning of a revived civil war if further arrests of former Khmer Rouge officials were made.
“I would prefer to see this tribunal fail instead of seeing war return to my country,” Hun Sen told Reuters on March 31.
Critics called the move a cover-up meant to safeguard against the public revelation of current governmental participation in the DK. Others suggest that the roles China and the United States played in bringing Pol Pot to power should be investigated.
Between half a million and 1 million Cambodians, and two thirds of the country’s livestock, are estimated to have been killed in secret US-led B-52 bombing raids, which were officially halted by Congress in 1973. To convince citizens to leave their homes, move to the provinces and participate in the agrarian society the Khmer Rouge intended to implement, soldiers told people that American bombers were returning and that their lives were in danger.
The ECCC has stated that it will only try individuals, not governments or organizations, for crimes committed in Cambodia between April 17, 1975 and January 6, 1979.