CAMBODIA: Cambodians Upset by Genocide Sentence

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Asia Times
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

The Khmer Rouge tribunal delivered its first verdict on Monday and sentenced a top leader of the genocidal regime, comrade Duch, to 30 years behind bars, but many victims outside the emotional courtroom were left complaining over this sentence.

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, was chief of the notorious S-21 detention and torture facility in the Cambodian capital, where at least 12,380 people were killed during the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975 to 1979.

Because the 67-year-old Duch had been in detention since May 1999 before his trial began in February last year, or more than 11 years ago, his sentence in the end was reduced to about 18 more years from now. He would be 86 years old at the time of his release.

"The verdict is too light," complained Bou Meng, one of just 12 people to walk out alive of Duch's torture facility at Tuol Sleng prison. "We are victims two times, once in the Khmer Rouge time and now once again," another survivor, Chum Mey, told the New York Times.

Although the prosecution had asked for the maximum 40-year sentence, judges at the United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal said Duch's compliance with the court and "limited remorse" meant that a total sentence of 35 years was sufficient.

"This court has tried and punished a perpetrator of Democratic Kampuchea, one of the most macabre regimes of the modern era," co-prosecutor Chea Leang said following the hour-long verdict, which found the defendant guilty of crimes against humanity and crimes against the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that limit the barbarity of war.

A further five years were removed from the sentence due to what was already deemed to be illegal detainment by a military court following Duch's original arrest in May 1999 up to July 2007, when he was handed over to the United Nations-hybrid court. With this taken into consideration, Duch will likely be imprisoned until 2029, subject to appeal.

"Anything under 30 [years] is not acceptable because it's inconceivable that he could even have one minute on the street," said Theary Seng, president of Cambodia's Board for Justice and Reconciliation. "Now if the international community isn't providing us justice, it leaves us with hopelessness," she added.

Close to 1.7 million people, or nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population at the time, were executed or died during the Khmer Rouge's rule due to forced labor or from starvation, as the leader of the extremist Maoist group, Pol Pot, tried to create an agrarian utopia in the country.

It was not just the Duch verdict that caused disquiet, particularly among the civil parties, in what was the first time that victims and their families have been considered part of an international hybrid court process.

In a surprise move, president of the trial chamber Nil Nonn told the packed courtroom that only 66 of the civil parties would be recognized in relation to the groundbreaking verdict, meaning that some 21 who had formed part of the process, mostly relatives of those killed under Duch's command, were not eligible for this recognition.

"I am not happy," said Hong Savath, whose uncle died in S-21. "The judge should have told me from the beginning that I am not a civil party."

She said she would appeal, although lawyers representing the civil parties throughout the process lamented that reparations were little more than symbolic anyway. This is because the Khmer Rouge tribunal had not set up the likes of a trust fund to compensate victims, as is the case with the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Along with a compiled list of Duch's confessions of guilt and remorse, the names of those deemed victimized as a result of his actions are to be compiled on the official tribunal website. But as some civil party lawyers noted, many of the relatives of the Khmer Rouge victims are unlikely to ever witness this gesture anyway because Cambodia is among the least Internet-connected countries in the region.

"It seems what has been ordered is the most minimal, most conservative and - perhaps it's fair to say - rather unimaginative reparations," said Karim Khan, a legal representative of some of the victims.

While lawyers, court monitors, spokespeople, judges, journalists and humanitarian workers announced and debated the verdict and its many intricacies, the most quiet person in the whole process on July 26 was Duch himself.

Asked to stand for the final verdict, he gave little indication of emotion. The five judges did not give the former revolutionary a chance to respond to the deliverance of justice that he denied his own detainees at S-21.

After firing his previous lawyer before the verdict, Duch is expected to lodge an appeal, especially given his surprising request for acquittal during the final hearings at the end of 2009. The question many have asked throughout this lengthy process is: has Duch changed?

Despite Duch's metamorphosis from mass murderer to Christian aid worker after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, Chum Mey told Inter Press Service he had seen little in the way of remorse and humility in the regime's chief torturer. "Until now, he is the same man. I still see the violence in him and I still see the arrogance."

One major point of contention against the proceedings from human-rights groups has been the court's decision to prosecute only a few individuals in connection with the Khmer Rouge genocide.

"His prison is comfortable with air-conditioning, food three times a day, fans and everything," Chum Mey told the New York Times. "I sat on the floor with filth and excrement all around."

Later this year, the court will decide whether to indict other senior members of the regime on war crimes: head of state Khieu Samphan; foreign minister Ieng Sary; his wife, the minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, and Nuon Chea, a senior ideologue known as "Brother No 2."

Human-rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also urging both the Cambodian government and the United Nations to uphold a standard of justice over political concerns.

"Progress could be undermined by political interference from Cambodian officials who openly oppose more prosecutions, and by disagreements between the Cambodian and international co-investigating judges," said Donna Guest, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific.

In a press release, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, said, "I support the ECCC [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia] as it moves forward with its investigations and urge all involved to ensure the process lives up to and reflects the imperatives of justice, transparency and reconciliation for the Cambodian people."

Kerry played a significant behind-the-scenes role in the tumultuous founding of the tribunal in the late 1990s, which was marked by clashes between the government and United Nations for control. In 1997, the failed presidential candidate suggested the hybrid nature of the court that was eventually adopted.