Judges at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia cleared what should be the final obstacle to the start of the first trial at the special courts on Friday. They rejected a prosecution appeal to charge the former prison chief known as Comrade Duch with being part of a conspiracy -- or "joint criminal enterprise". But they widened the scope of the charges against him to include torture and pre-meditated murder. Along with four other former Khmer Rouge leaders, Duch faces charges of crimes against humanity. The slow speed of progress at the Tribunal has frustrated many Cambodians.
Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, former Khmer Rouge prison chief at Tuol Sleng prison
The prosecutors may be disappointed -- but for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime the more important factor is that a start to the first trial is now in sight. The UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal will name the date next week. It is likely to be in the first quarter of next year.
Comrade Duch's trial would have been well under way by now but for an appeal by the prosecutors against the investigating judges' indictment. They said that even though the former prison chief faced charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the scope of the indictment wasn't wide enough.
Specifically, they wanted him to stand accused of being part of a “joint criminal enterprise” with other Khmer Rouge leaders -- a conspiracy to murder, starve and torture as many as two million Cambodians in the late 1970s. The prosecutors said that would mean evidence from Duch's trial could be used more widely against the other Khmer Rouge leaders facing charges.
Survivors of torture are dying off as trial drags on
But the appeal has resulted in a delay of around six months, which has been hard to bear for people such as Van Nath -- one of the few survivors of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, which Duch controlled -- and where around 15,000 people were tortured.
“We used to have seven people who survived Tuol Sleng at that time,” he explains. “
Those people waited. Then there were only four who had survived. But among those four, another one died, and now there are only three of us. We don't know who will be the next to go -- maybe we'll just die first. But I'm still waiting for the trial now.”
The UN Tribunal's judges were sworn in two-and-a-half years ago. The whole process had originally been scheduled to last a total of just three years but that time's almost up already. While five former Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged with crimes against humanity, progress towards trials has been slowed by constant legal manoeuvring.
International legal standards
Many survivors of the Khmer Rouge era find it hard to understand why the process is taking so long -- especially as they've already waited three decades for justice. But the United Nations' spokesman for the UN Tribunal, Peter Foster, says there are sound reasons behind what some view as unnecessary delays.
“Not just the victims, but the whole population of Cambodia is frustrated,” Foster says. “The legal process, when you apply international standards of law, is very complex and takes a long time to go through. It's not really fair to say it was a delay; this is part of the legal process, and it's a normal part of any court. But yes, everyone is aware that the population that was alive during that time is getting older -- and certainly our defendants are getting a lot older. There has to be a balance struck between getting things done as quickly as possible and ensuring that we move forward with international standards in place.”
But the issue of what constitutes “international standards” has also been causing problems. Although the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is backed by the United Nations and funded by donor countries, it's actually a Cambodian court. And there've been persistent allegations of financial corruption and political interference.
A high-level UN delegation will arrive from New York next week in an attempt to sort out the problems. But many Khmer Rouge are not interested in the behind-the-scenes wrangling. They just want some explanations as to why so many Cambodians died at the hands of their countrymen.