By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, March 30 -- Three decades after Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge were flushed from power, a prominent regime official stood in the dock Monday for the first time to answer charges of crimes against humanity, breaches of the laws of war, murder, and torture.
Kaing Khek Iev, who is better known by what he describes as his "revolutionary" name, Duch, ran the Khmer Rouge's most notorious torture center, Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. An estimated 16,000 men, women and children died there between 1975 and 1979.
He is the only prominent member of the Khmer Rouge regime to express remorse for the group's attempt to create a communist agrarian utopia, a political experiment that cost as many as 1.7 million lives -- a fifth of Cambodia's population -- through murder, overwork, disease and starvation.
Duch's case is being heard by a court that includes Cambodian and international judges who are working under a system loosely based on French civil law.
"There were autopsies carried out on live persons, there was medical experimentation, and people were bled to death: These were all crimes against humanity admitted by Duch," the prosecutors charged in the indictment. Among the four forms of torture he officially condoned, they said, was pouring water up victims' noses.
Although Duch said little Monday beyond confirming his identity, he has confessed to many of the crimes, admissions he has said were motivated partly by his conversion to Christianity in the mid-1990s. By the time he was identified by a journalist in 1999, he had reinvented himself as an aid worker.
In grainy, 30-year-old pictures taken at Tuol Sleng, Duch stands among the black-clad guards he ordered to carry out "the policy of smashing enemies."
"The term 'smash' was widely understood to mean 'kill,' " prosecutors told the court. They went on to say that if guards allowed a prisoner to die or to commit suicide before the regime had completed its torture, the guards could be branded traitors and find themselves on the receiving end of the electric clips attached to their ears and the fingernail extractors.
If Duch, 66, is found guilty, he could face a life sentence.
On Monday, he attentively read the transcript of the indictment as he sat, dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, in the court on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He looked more like the mathematics teacher he once was than a ruthless killer whose careful documentary record of his own brutality now forms a large part of the case against him.
Hundreds of spectators sat behind a glass screen, having gathered to witness a moment that Theary Seng, whose parents were killed by the regime, described as "momentous."
"I'm still processing it, but it is just an amazing sensation after having talked and written so much about it, after having waited personally for 30 years for this court to take place," said Theary Seng, who spent three years in a Khmer Rouge jail and still remembers her mother being taken away along with other adults to be executed.
The legal process for bringing Duch to trial has been deeply controversial. The trial is expected to cost $150 million, $60 million of which has already been spent. There have been accusations of government interference intended to limit the scope of the charges and protect some from prosecution. There have also been allegations of corruption by court officials.
"This court is greatly flawed," Theary Seng said, pointing out that after 30 years, memories and evidence have both deteriorated.
Cambodia's government is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former brigade commander in the Khmer Rouge before he defected to Vietnam. The government contains at least three other former senior Khmer Rouge officials.
"Hun Sen has thrown obstacle after obstacle in the way of fair trials, an independent tribunal and speedy justice," said Brad Adams, the Asia Director for Human Rights Watch. "We don't have an independent court. We have a politicized Cambodian judiciary matched with a minority group of U.N.-appointed people."
Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who oversaw the reign of terror, died in 1998, apparently of natural causes. Four other key members of the regime, all now in their late 70s and early 80s, have been indicted: Nuon Chea, the movement's deputy leader; Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge president; Ieng Sary, the group's foreign minister; and his wife Ieng Thirith, who was the social affairs minister. They are all fighting the charges.
International prosecutors want to charge another six people, a move Chea Leang, the Cambodian co-prosecutor, has resisted. She says that further trials would inhibit reconciliation. Adams said such arguments underscore a fundamental weakness in the courts.
"The notion that you can deal with the deaths of 2 million people by putting five or even 10 people on trial is ludicrous," he said.
The court is also limited by its mandate, which covers only the period from the day the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975 to the day the Vietnamese army drove it out in 1979.
But even the court's critics say that despite its shortcomings, the process is healing some of the wounds of a population still deeply traumatized by its experiences under the Khmer Rouge.
"Despite the fact that it is very flawed, I see other benefits coming out of it," said Theary Seng. "We are using the court as a catalyst, as an illustration to jump-start discussions on healing, on reconciliation, on trauma, on history, on our own culpability, on the culpability of the Chinese and the Americans."