The Cambodian genocide tribunal has come to a verdict almost 40 years after the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge: 'life' for the repressive regime's chief executioner. Sibylle Golte comments.
The old man looks harmless enough, thin, gray and slightly hunched. But looks can be deceiving. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, tortured thousands of people to death. Women, men, children, elderly - all were treated equally in Duch's Tuol Sleng torture prisons. Only seven of the 20,000 inmates incarcerated there survived the horrific torture. The remains of the dead can be found in the so-called “killing fields" - the mass graves just outside the capital Phnom Penh.
Around 40 years ago, the quaint, picturesque Southeast Asian country Cambodia became a gory scene of torture and death under the regime of the Khmer Rouge. City dwellers were forced to move to the country side, thousands of them accused of collaborating with the class enemy - the USA. When Vietnamese troops went in in 1979, a fourth of the Cambodian population had already died - either from disease, starvation or murder.
Over 30 years later, the perpetrators are brought before judges. A handful of old men are now going before the UN-backed genocide tribunal in Cambodia in the “largest and most complex case“ since German Nazis were tried in the Nuremberg Trials.
It is a painful process for the people of Cambodia. No court in the world could ever atone for the pain and suffering caused by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's affiliates lived their lives and even had good jobs in high positions. Life-time sentences, like in Duch's case, would only mean a few years in prison - nothing compared to what his victims and their families had to go through.
Worst of all is the lack of responsibility they take for their actions. None of the old men have shown any trace of remorse. Duch sees himself as a victim of the system - as a spoke on the Khmer Rouge wheel. His lawyer even sought to get him an acquittal.
It is impossible to imagine that only a few people were able to torment a country of eight million people. Thousands of people who helped facilitate the Khmer Rouge's atrocities lived and continue to live among the innocent throughout the country. They held political offices and carried out business as usual as if nothing had happened.
That is also what Duch wanted to do. But now he won't be able to. Tuol Sleng's chief executioner will remain in prison until his death. With regards to his age, that doesn't seem harsh – by far not compared to his crimes. But giving him a life sentence in prison has symbolic meaning. It means that horrific criminals are being brought to justice. Cambodia is dealing with its collective nightmare - the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge's torture prison, Tuol Sleng, is now a memorial. Duch's maximum sentence puts an end to his inglorious story. The lesson is clear: crimes against humanity do not go unpunished. That does nothing to help the victims, but a little, at least, to help their descendants.
Author: Sybille Golte/sb
Editor: Shamil Shams