The landmark trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader has begun in Cambodia. The defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as "Duch", was the chairman of the notorious Tuol Sleng torture facility in the late 1970s. He is one of five former Khmer rouge leaders who face charges of crimes against humanity for their involvement in the deaths of nearly 1.7 million people under Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist regime.
Former Khmer Rouge S21 prison commander "Duch" surrounded by defense lawyers and guards
Hundreds of people turned up at the court in Phnom Penh to watch the long-awaited trial on Tuesday.
Helen Jarvis, a spokesperson for the UN-backed tribunal, said it was “a very historic occasion for Cambodia finally after all these years to have the case opening.”
Almost every family in Cambodia lost someone under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime so emotions were high.
One victim, Sun Suy, said the landmark had brought back many traumatic memories: “I was 12 years old when the Khmer soldiers came to our house, handcuffed my parents and killed them in front of me and my sister. I have learnt to cope with my pain and anger but now all those feelings have come back. It is difficult for me to talk about it.”
1.7 million deaths in four years
The Khmer Rouge was finally ousted by Vietnamese-backed forces in January 1979. During its four-year rule, however, nearly 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, torture or execution.
None of the leaders has ever been brought to justice. Khmer Rouge head, Pol Pot, died in 1998 before he could face trial.
Last year, the 66-year-old Duch was indicted along with four other senior former leaders, including the former President Khieu Samphan and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary. The five, who are charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, all face a life sentence if convicted.
Duch headed the Tuol Sleng interrogation facility, also known as the S21 prison, in which at least 16,000 were jailed, tortured or killed.
Little remorse among perpetrators
Among the fiveformer leaders indicted, he is the only one so far to have shown any remorse about what happened nearly three decades ago.
After years of wrangling between Cambodia and the UN, the genocide tribunal was finally set up in 2006. But heated debate about rules for the trial and cash crunches led to further delays.
The present tribunal is a hybrid court, combining Cambodian and international law. It consists of domestic and international judges, prosecutors and defence teams.
Victims can participate in legal process
In a unique experiment, which could set a precedent, victims are being given the chance to participate in the legal process, with the right to interrogate their former jailors and torturers.
Keat Bophal, the head of the court's victim unit, explained that it had been set up “so that victims can take part in legal proceedings and talk about the torture they had to face. This will soothe their pain.”
The first part of this landmark hearing is expected to last for nearly three days. The court will then choose witnesses and set a date for the next stage. The full testimony is expected to begin in late March and a verdict is expected by September.