Judges at a UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia have been revealing details of the investigation of a former Khmer Rouge prison chief. Kaing Kek Iev is better known by his alias Comrade Duch. He’s facing charges of crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of around 14,000 people. The judges’ statement took up the whole of the first day of the long-awaited first trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, center, was the chief jailor of Tuol Sleng prison center in 1970s
The judges’ reading of the indictment against Comrade Duch may have been a formality. But they immediately reminded the hundreds of people packed into the courtroom of the gravity of the charges the former prison chief was facing.
Torture and pre-meditated murder have been added to the charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. But the details from the investigation which the judges highlighted pressed home the horrific nature of the alleged offences.
They included extracts of witness statements from people who had worked under Duch at Tuol Sleng prison. There were graphic descriptions of the methods used to extract confessions.
“Removing the clothes of prisoners and then using electrical equipment to shock the genitals or ears of prisoners were used during interrogations.”
Survivors satisfied with the proceedings
As many as two million Cambodians died during the four years of Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970s. Forced labour, starvation and summary execution of so-called enemies of the revolution all took their toll. Survivors of those horrors who attended the first day of Duch’s trial expressed their satisfaction at seeing one of their former tormentors in the dock.
“It’s a legal process, that’s based on evidence,” says Theary Seng, a victim. “After 30 years, we have evidence, this is an easy case, he has confessed. So it makes it a very good case to start this process moving.”
Theary Seng is also the author of Daughter of the Killing Fields – which describes how the Khmer Rouge murdered both her parents.
Explaining the atrocities
Duch himself is likely to address the court in the opening three days of the trial. He has admitted that he was in charge of Tuol Sleng prison – and that he bears some responsibility for what happened there.
He’s been cooperating with the investigating judges – and survivors of the Pol Pot era are hoping that, at long last, they will hear some kind of explanation as to why almost two million Cambodians died at the hands of their compatriots in less than four years. Duch’s lawyer, Francois Roux, says that even though his client wasn’t a senior leader of the Khmer Rouge, his presence in court – and contrition – are important.
“I’m sure that Duch doesn’t have all the answers. But because he recognises, because he’s going to ask forgiveness, I think his voice is useful,” says Francois Roux.
There may be further revelations on Tuesday, when the prosecution lawyers are due to give their opening statement. If time allows, Duch himself may respond. To hear the former prison chief explaining his actions in person would be a real milestone for many Cambodians.