PHNOM PENH—Lawyers preparing for the long-awaited trial of the Khmer Rouge’s lead torturer clashed in court this week over whether footage shot by Vietnamese soldiers inside his notorious prison may be admitted as prosecution evidence.
The seven-minute film—shot in black and white by Vietnamese troops after they ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979—shows inmates’ emaciated bodies, some still in chains, inside S-21, or Tuol Sleng, prison.
Ka Savuth, a Cambodian lawyer who is part of the team defending Kaing Guek Eav, known by the alias Duch, protested during pretrial hearings the prosecution’s bid to use the films, which he described as fabricated.
Places and pictures—pictures of the prison and children, and documents regarding the deaths—aren’t political. They are factual."
Chhang Youk, Documentation Center of Cambodia
Duch, now 66, served as commandant at Tuol Sleng during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule. On Tuesday, he sat silently as hundreds of victims crowded the court’s galleries.
Defense lawyers say the investigating judges should have vetted the film, along with new witnesses and documents described as interrogation reports bearing notes allegedly written by Duch ordering the deaths of inmates.
They also cited alleged discrepancies in the film that they say indicate tampering.
Chhang Youk, director of the nonprofit Documentation Center of Cambodia, said he received the film from Vietnam and defended its neutrality and authenticity.
“Places and pictures—pictures of the prison and children, and documents regarding the deaths—aren’t political. They are factual. They are not political, but are facts. We must not politicize facts,” Chhang Youk said after the hearing.
On the eve of the trial, two members of the Vietnamese crew said they had also found five child survivors of S-21 hiding under piles of prisoners' clothing. One child died soon after from malnutrition, they said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh meanwhile said that Washington has now sent U.S. $1.8 million in promised aid for the trial to the United Nations, which will disburse the money.
Duch, now a born-again Christian, is accused of overseeing the deaths of up to 16,000 men, women, and children at Tuol Sleng. He has expressed remorse for his actions.
The trial constitutes a landmark in this impoverished country, in which nearly everyone lost relatives, friends, or neighbors as Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, known as "brother number one," pursued his dream of an ethnically pure, agrarian utopia.
Years of wrangling
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was established in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling over legal procedure between Cambodia and the United Nations.
The court will announce a start date for the trial once the witness list is settled.
The trial is widely seen as the last chance to bring the Khmer Rouge's surviving leaders to justice.
It has been called an "experiment in international justice," with domestic and foreign judges working side-by-side to try to ensure its independence.
But critics say its integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference, and many Cambodians have questioned its independence.
Only 12 people held at Tuol Sleng survived, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Most inmates were forced to make confessions, then taken from the prison for execution at a nearby orchard called Choeung Ek.
Duch is one of five ageing senior cadres facing charges and is expected to testify against “brother number two” Nuon Chea, ex-Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan, and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife.
All face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Original reporting by Leng Malyand Huy Vannak for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Uon Chhi. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.