Torture chief Duch finally to face justice

by John Einar Sandvand on February 17, 2009

It has been a historic day: 30 years after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown, the first of their leaders finally went on trial. And it is not often you see that many people show up for a trial and sit through hours of boring procedural elaborations.

Security was massive at the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) 16 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. Many had shown up very early in the morning to ensure they were admitted in time for the trial opening. There were journalists, victims, monks in the orange robes, foreign diplomats, representatives of NGOs and numerous others.

I think everybody felt very strongly how symbolically important this day was for the Cambodian people. For so many years the process of putting the former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice has dragged on.  The government of Cambodia as well as  parts of the population have been ambivalent in their attutude towards the court process, one reason being that several government members, including prime minister Hun Sen, themselves once were Khmer Rouge officers.

Kaing Guek Eav, usually known as Duch, was dressed in a light blue shirt and appeared calm during the hearing. Considering that he is 66 years old, he looked healthy and strong.  For many victims it was a very emotional moment to watch him in the court room.

Duch was the head of Tuol Sleng, the most important torture prison during the Khmer Rouge regime.  This was the main prison used for internal purges in Khmer Rouge. Numbers vary, but up to 17.000 people were victims of systematic torture at this prison. All but a very few died. Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, has become the most wellknown symbol of Khmer Rouge’s brutality.

Today’s hearing was boring, to be honest. It was all about different procedural matters with elaborate arguments in difficult legal language.  Duch himself was not invited to say a word. Yet several hundre people kept staying in the court room as if taking note of every word spoken. For most I think it was important personally to be present. They realized that finally there was hope to see justice.

And then you have those of us who are journalists, of course. No less than 300 journalists had applied for media accreditation and a great number had flown in from abroad.

In the breaks survivors of Tuol Sleng quietly gave their reflections to eager reporters. One of them was Vann Nath, a painter who survived Tuol Sleng because of his skills in producing portraits of Pol Pot.

He seemed almost shy today, but was still welcoming in answering the same questions again and again.

Like how he would describe Duch:

- 30 years ago he was strong, tough and cruel. But today he looked just like another old man, Vann Nath said.

I was really struck with how huge operation the tribunal is. Only the fact that the proceedings are held in three different languages – Khmer, English and French – makes it extremely complex.

But the very fact that the case is actually taking place, is what is important here. I think for Cambodians it will be a unique chance to start healing the deep wounds that are still there after the atrocities of Khmer Rouge.  And that will be the case even more so when both Duch himself and the victims take the stand to give their versions of history.

Here are links to some of the artikles reporters have written about today’s hearing:

My own article is in Norwegian, I am afraid: Tortursjef for retten – etter 30 år

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