PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – An accused torture centre boss went before Cambodia’s genocide tribunal Tuesday for its first trial in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime more than three decades ago.
Kaing Guek Eav – better known as Duch, who headed the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh – is charged with crimes against humanity and is this first of five defendants scheduled for long-delayed trials by the UN-assisted tribunal. The hearing Tuesday was for procedural matters and testimony is expected to begin only in late March.
Duch was driven to the courtroom in a bulletproof car from a nearby detention centre.
Duch, 66, is accused of committing or abetting a range of crimes including murder, torture and rape at S-21 prison – formerly a school – where up to 16,000 men, women and children were held and tortured, before being put to death.
He has made no formal confession. However, unlike the other four defendants, Duch “admitted or acknowledged” many of the crimes occurred at his prison, said the indictment from court judges.
Duch, who converted to Christianity, has also asked for forgiveness from his victims.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 after five years of bitter civil war, many of their countrymen thought peace was at hand. But in their effort to remake society, they instituted a reign of terror that lasted nearly four years, until ended by an invasion by neighbouring Vietnam.
Many victims feared all the Khmer Rouge leaders would die before facing justice and bringing even one of them to trial is seen as a breakthrough. But there are real concerns the process is being politically manipulated and thousands of killers will escape unpunished.
“It’s going to be a very big day for the Cambodian people because the justice that they have been waiting for 30 years is starting to get closer and closer,” tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said on the eve of the trial opening.
Duch’s hearing before the tribunal was expected to last two or three days and draw up to 1,000 people, Reach Sambath said.
The trial comes 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 13 years after the tribunal was first proposed and nearly three years after the court was inaugurated.
The tribunal has been plagued by political interference from the Cambodian government, allegations of bias and corruption, lack of funding and bickering between Cambodian and international lawyers.
Some observers believe Prime Minister Hun Sen is controlling the tribunal’s scope by directing the decisions of the Cambodian prosecutors and judges.
Others facing trial are Khieu Samphan, the group’s former head of state; Ieng Sary, its foreign minister; his wife Ieng Thirith, who was minister for social affairs and Nuon Chea, the movement’s chief ideologue.
All have denied committing crimes.
Heather Ryan of New York City-based Open Justice Initiative, which monitors international judicial standards, said it is possible the tribunal will deliver justice but there are hurdles.
“Until the government of Cambodia and the United Nations demonstrate seriousness about getting over those hurdles I think there will be a serious doubt about the ultimate value of these trials,” she said.