PHNOM PENH—The long-awaited trial of the Khmer Rouge’s lead torturer has now opened, with the first senior cadre facing charges of crimes against humanity. The trial comes three decades after the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, overwork, and execution at the hands of the Marxist faction.
Kaing Guek Eav, a former math teacher known by the alias Duch, served as commandant of the notorious S-21, or Tuol Sleng, prison during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule. On Tuesday, he sat silently as hundreds of victims crowded the court’s galleries.
The hearing focused notably on whether to allow testimony by Norng Chanphal, a child survivor of S-21 who came forward after the court's deadline for naming witness.
Participants expect the court to conclude the matter Wednesday and then set an opening date for the trial.
"Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims and the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly," French defense lawyer Francois Roux told reporters at the specially built court outside the Cambodian capital.
We wanted more suspects to be arrested and detained for trial..."
Cambodian civil servant
Duch, now 66 and 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.
Landmark trialThe 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.
It 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.
Doubts about court
“We want justice,” one Cambodian civil servant said in an interview.
“We wanted more suspects to be arrested and detained for trial but [prosecutor] Chea Leang said that arresting more suspects could jeopardize national reconciliation, leading to instability, insecurity, and so on.”
The civil servant, who was conscripted by the Khmer Rouge as a child and spoke on condition of anonymity, said he knew many people who doubted the independence of the court.
“I asked my friends and many people. They said what we want is an independent tribunal. We all know how the court in Cambodia is, so we want to see them tried in The Hague itself,” he said.
“I don't even want to follow this trial. My friends said it is on TV but I told them why bother to watch such a pre-arranged show? It's just a waste of time.”
Only 12 people held at Tuol Sleng survived, according to the U.S.-funded 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.
Call for independence
In a statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the tribunal to resist political interference and meet international fair-trial standards.
"Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people," Sara Colm, Cambodia-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
"Until allegations of corruption and improper interference by the government are investigated and resolved, the tribunal's integrity as a legitimate and independent court will remain in question."
Original reporting by Sos Kem, Oum Vonn, and Maly Leng for RFA's Khmer service. Translation by Suwith Changmani. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.