The long-awaited first trial at Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal is into its second week. The former detention centre chief, best known as Comrade Duch, has been answering questions about his role in the torture and deaths of thousands of people. The charges he faces include crimes against humanity and pre-meditated murder. But the start of the trial has been overshadowed by allegations of corruption and political interference.
Prime Minister Hun Sen says he only wants the five Khmer Rouge leaders already in custody to stand trial
Comrade Duch’s guilt is not really in doubt. On the second day of his trial, he stood up to admit that he took personal responsibility for the detention centre known as Tuol Sleng or S-21.
“May I be permitted to apologise to the survivors of the regime and also to the families of the victims whose loved ones died so brutally at S-21? I would like those people to please know I would like to apologise and although I am not asking you to forgive me now, I intend to do so later.”
Forgiveness may be difficult for many survivors of the Khmer Rouge era, who have been waiting for justice for three decades. The strategy of Duch’s defence team will almost certainly be hard to swallow.
It has argued that his sentence, when passed, should take into account mitigating factors. For example, the nine years he spent in pre-trial detention, in apparent violation of Cambodian law as well as his claim that he was only following the orders of senior Khmer Rouge leaders and feared for his family if he did not obey.
S-21 survivors are angry
This is too much for the few known survivors of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison. "I want to beat him to death," says Bou Meng but he adds that he will respect the judicial process.
The reward for Bou Meng’s restraint may be Duch's revelations about the policies which led to the deaths of so many Cambodians.
“I am still continuing to cooperate with the Tribunal in hearings, and I will answer all the questions you may ask me or the prosecutors may ask me, and also questions posed by the civil parties based on the evidence,” Duch said this week.
He also told the Tribunal that US foreign policy had indirectly led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The US launched a massive bombing campaign over Cambodia in an attempt to disrupt supply lines to North Vietnamese forces. That pushed many rural Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge.
Political interference challenges credibility of special courts
Events outside the courtroom have challenged Duch’s testimony this week. Prime Minister Hun Sen finally stated explicitly what many people had long suspected -- that he did not want the Tribunal to investigate any more suspects other than the five already in custody.
Co-prosecutor Robert Petit said that political interference put the credibility of special courts at risk: “I don’t think it’s a very positive approach for people with public responsibilities to comment on what courts should or should not do. I think an impartial, free and fair legal system is the only foundation you can have if you want to build any kind of democratic society.”
The Tribunal is also dealing with ongoing allegations of financial corruption. A high-level delegation from the United Nations has been trying to reach an agreement with the government to stop money being siphoned off from the Cambodian side of the special courts.