Light is shed on sexual violence under Khmer Rouge | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 08.06.2012
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Light is shed on sexual violence under Khmer Rouge

In Cambodia, a new report has examined gender-based violence under the communist Khmer Rouge, an issue that some say has been neglected in research and at the United Nations-backed war crimes court.

As a 14-year-old, Houng Savat did not realise that she was pregnant at first, after three Khmer Rouge cadres in western Pursat province raped her in late 1978.

"As a result of the rape, I had a son," she told DW. "When I gave birth, I felt so lonely: I had no husband, no relatives, and no hospital."

Houng Savat, who originated from Phnom Penh and lost six family members during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 rule, said that other girls had the same experience as she did.

"Mostly girls got killed after they were raped," she said. "I could only stand and watch the men rape other girls because I didn't know what they were doing."

Gender-based violence (GBV) perpetrated under the communist Khmer Rouge has been largely overlooked in research of the period, observers say, though a small body of evidence has emerged.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, center, arrives in the courtroom for a session of UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Kaing Guek Eav Duch was convicted of torture and rape in 2011 and filed an appeal in 2012

Wide-spread crimes

In a report released last month involving 104 interviews in northwestern Battambang province and southern Svay Rieng province in 2010, nearly 90 percent of respondents reported knowledge of GBV during the Khmer Rouge period, with over six out of every ten respondents reporting knowledge of rape.

While the report states that random sampling was not used and the results are not representative of a broader population, its findings suggest that GBV was "an important and relatively well-known aspect of the suffering experienced."

"You can go into villages and towns in Cambodia and find a number of people who will tell you about the sexual violence that they experienced, witnessed or had other reliable knowledge of," Katrina Natale, in-country legal coordinator at the Center for Justice and Accountability and author of the report, told DW in an email.

Natale added that such violence is often pushed underground due to stigma, bias and the relatively low social status of women and girls that are usually victims.

Among others, the report made recommendations to the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal - known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) - which some have criticized for its treatment of gender-based crimes.

'Marginal' interest

In a recent letter UN secretary-general's special representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström said that aside from forced marriage, crimes of sexual violence had only been "marginally taken up" by the hybrid court.

"Experiences of sexual crimes have not been integrated into the court's strategies, whether forensic, investigative, or prosecutorial," Wallström said.

In Case 001, 69-year-old former S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was convicted of the crime against humanity of torture, which included one instance of rape.

Cambodian students sing during the annual Day of Anger

Cambodians remember the terror on the Studenten Day of Anger

Thousands of civilians victims of sexual violence

Proceedings are underway in the court's second case involving three former senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

In a response to Wallström's letter, ECCC international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley said that in 2006-2007 investigators from the Office of the Co-Prosecutors (OCP) found that rape and other forms of sexual violence were perpetrated "on a widespread basis during the (Khmer Rouge-controlled) Democratic Kampuchea regime."

"In the Co-Prosecutor's Final Submission to the Co-Investigating Judges in respect of Case 002 we stated: 'Throughout the DK regime, thousands of civilians were the victims of rape and sexual violence sanctioned, perpetrated, approved or condoned by the authorities'" Cayley wrote.

In the Case 002 indictment, investigating judges found that it was Communist Party of Kampuchea (whose followers were generally known as Khmer Rouge) policy to prevent rape and punish the perpetrators.

Cayley said that the judges' finding was "not the factual position" of the prosecution. "Our submission to charge those rapes which took place in DK Security Centers was rejected," he wrote.

However, charges were included for rape that occurred within the context of forced marriage.

"The main issue is that they didn't have any specialized investigative resources set up to systematically document how extensive rape and sexual violence was during the Khmer Rouge regime," said Clair Duffy, a tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative.

"The ECCC did not devote the same kind of priority to sexual violence against women as it did to other crimes."

Funding shortages

ECCC senior assistant prosecutor Tarik Abdulhak told DW that while the court had lacked resources due to chronic funding shortages, gender-based crimes were given the same priority as other crimes investigated.

Tang Khim, 54, a Khmer Rouge survivor, was raped by a Khmer Rouge soldier

Many women were raped during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror

"We have numerous investigators and prosecutors who have spent years - and in some cases decades - investigating mass crime, many of them having done rape cases or cases involving rape," he said.

A representative from the court's office of the co-investigating judges could not be reached.

Despite criticisms of the tribunal, many have emphasized that it cannot address the needs of all victims, and alternative mechanisms are required to acknowledge sexual violence committed during the Khmer Rouge era.

Promoting awareness

In December, a non-judicial women's hearing coordinated by local NGO Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) was held in Phnom Penh, in which two survivors and two witnesses of sexual violence outside of forced marriage testified in front of a panel of rights activists.

"In any post-conflict country, it is always necessary to have the judicial transitional justice mechanism, but also non-judicial," said Beini Ye, a senior adviser to CDP for the German development agency GIZ.

Recently, on a local radio program coordinated by CDP, Houng Savat spoke on-air about her experiences and responded to listeners' questions.

"I am here to tell other women to be strong, to talk about it and be brave," she said.

Author: Mary Kozlovski
Editor: Sarah Berning

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