The Khmer Rouge trial gets substantial

I witnessed today the first day of substantive hearing of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the former chairman of the famed Phnom Penh detention center S-21 who was charged (among other things) with crimes against humanity. (From 1975 to 1979, under the Khmer Rouge, at least 12,380 men, women and children died at S-21 and the related Choeung Ek Killing Fields.) I.e. this was the first day of something actually sorta meaningful to non-jurists happening publicly in the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

The trial officially opened in February but the first hearings only addressed procedural matters. Then the substantive hearing officially opened today, but then again, we didn’t get much. Trial started at 10, Duch spoke briefly to state his identity, then we got a 3-hour reading (interrupted by lunch) of Duch’s 45-page indictment. Turns out that document is not any more fun the second time around. There were people ostensibly dozing off, but at the same time there were people for whom this wasn’t mere administrative language: it was detailed explanation of what happened to themselves and their relatives. One woman cried out, a few more had tears in their eyes. 

Duch back in 1999 before he was arrested. He was then a teacher and NGO worker in Samlaut, Battambang province. He was living under an assumed name and was discovered by journalist Nic Dunlop. ©2000 Stuart Isett/Corbis Sygma via Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program

I sat by chance next to a man with an impressive story. His father was a pilot and colonel in the army of the Khmer Republic, the regime the Khmer Rouge ousted. The family didn’t leave Cambodia when many of their friends did because the father didn’t believe the Khmer Rouge would be so bad. When he realized what was going on, he tried to explain to his kid, 11 then, what was going on the best he could. Then he disappeared. The father and mother never returned from reeducation camps; three siblings starved to death. Only a younger brother and he survived. At the end of the regime, he found himself in a refugee camp in Thailand and was eventually adopted by a French couple. He became a pilot "like Papa". "I never knew my dad very well, but now I know him through his profession," he told me. Stories like this one are unfortunately a time a dozen in Cambodia, and that’s what these trials are about.

Everyone was visibly disappointed when the court decided to adjourn for the day at 3 pm without getting to the opening statements, which were tentatively scheduled for today.

Heard in the crowd: "Woohoo, day 1 and we’re already a half day behind schedule!"

That’s very telling of the skepticism for the court around Phnom Penh. Not that it’s not doing great work, but it’s been 30 years coming, and now the main guys are old. Even the prosecutor has a hard time sounding convinced they’ll ever see trial.

Tuesday: Opening statement of the prosecution, after which the defense gets to respond if it chooses to (we expect it will). And maybe — maybe — Duch will choose to address the court himself. He’s been accepting some responsibility so far but arguing he was mostly following orders and there’s bigger fish than him. Many victims expect to get more historical information from him and even an apology. Whatever he’s got to say, we’re curious to hear.

This was originally posted to Isabelle’s Frontline blog. You can follow Isabelle’s reports from the Cambodian capital here.