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First verdict by Khmer Rouge tribunal due on Monday

On Monday the Cambodian war crimes tribunal will hand down its verdict in the case against Kaing Guek Eav, the former head of the Khmer Rouge's most important torture and execution centre known as S-21.

Duch during the first day of the UN-backed tribunal on Feb. 17, 2009

Duch during the first day of the UN-backed tribunal on Feb. 17, 2009

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, remains the only member of the Khmer Rouge to appear thus far before an international tribunal charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Duch's trial heard emotional testimony from some of the very few who survived S-21. The prison was a place where all of the 20,000 who entered were deemed guilty of treason. No more than a dozen inmates survived.

Vann Nath, one of the few survivors of the S-21 prison, has written a book about his time there

Vann Nath, one of the few survivors of S-21, has written a book about his time there

S-21's function was to torture prisoners, extract a confession, and then kill them. Those implicated in the confessions would in turn be rounded up, and the cycle resumed.

Duch's signature was on thousands of execution orders, which contained the phrase 'smash them'.

Last November, after 77 days of testimony, the process of hearing evidence at Duch's trial came to an end.

A 'test run' for the main trial

Cambodian-American Theary Seng was in court to see how events unfolded. She was also the first person to file as a civil party at the tribunal.

"The Duch trial was a test run, and it went overall very well," she says. "It went very well in creating and generating the interest among the larger population and giving out information to the public about the Khmer Rouge era. It was interesting in hearing and seeing Duch himself speak in person. So overall it was a good test run for the core trial – and that's of the senior Khmer Rouge leaders in Case Two."

Case Two – which will likely start next year – will see four senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders go on trial.

The hearings in Duch's trial came to an end last November

The hearings in Duch's trial came to an end last November

Dramatic turn in the end

Duch's case had its share of dramatic moments, but the most remarkable unfolded in the final hours when Duch turned on his international lawyer and undid nine months of defense strategy.

The tribunal's hybrid nature – part Cambodian, part United Nations – means each area of the court, including Duch's defense team, has both a national and an international element.

Duch's Cambodian lawyer is a man called Kar Savuth. His international lawyer is – or rather was, since Duch fired him earlier this month – Francois Roux.

Roux's approach through the trial was to get Duch to admit his role, accept responsibility, apologize, and beg forgiveness. It was widely seen as Duch's best chance of getting a reduced sentence.

That was the defense strategy for nine months. But in the last three days of the trial, Duch's Cambodian lawyer stood up and stunned the court by saying his client should be freed because international law did not apply, and because Duch was only following orders.

It was a legal nonsense – even Francois Roux said that – and yet Duch went along with it. Divisions in a defense team couldn't possibly be starker.

Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was originally a school and has now been converted into a museum

Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, has now been converted into a museum

Playing for release

Anne Heindel is a legal adviser at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an archive from which much of the documentary evidence in Duch's trial was sourced. She thinks sacking Roux could be laying the groundwork for an appeal.

"It could either be a strategy for claiming ineffective assistance of counsel on appeal, or it could be something totally different and personal. It's just really hard to say."

Duch has clearly decided to play for release. But Heindel think his chances of walking free on Monday are minimal. "I would say zero, that's my personal opinion. I think he's going to get something that's essentially a life sentence." For Duch, who is now 68 years old, anything more than 25 years will likely amount to life in jail.

Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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