Monday, 30 March 2009

First Khmer Rouge Trial finally underway

The international media is full of news reports today announcing that the first Khmer Rouge trial is finally underway. After years of controversy and corruption scandals prosecutors at the ECCC have today started their case against Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch. As I have previously blogged here Duch ran the notorious Toul Sleng prison camp in Phnom Penh where many thousands of Cambodians were tortured and executed.

The opening of today's substantive proceedings has been welcomed by all, including the many critics of the ECCC. It is of course hard to be opposed to the prosecution of those alleged to have committed crime against humanity and war crimes. However, even as those welcomes come, the criticisms and general concern about the operation of the ECCC continue. Brittis Edman, Amnesty International's Cambodia researcher reflected this tension in the organisations press statement on the hearing: "The Cambodian people will finally see one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge leaders face trial. But many more need to face the court to really deliver justice to the millions of victims of these horrific crimes."

The decision of the ECCC to prosecute only five suspects has been widely criticised. Yet when Robert Petit, the international Co-Prosecutor wanted to send six additional names to the investigating judges for further examination his Cambodian counterpart, Chea Leang, objected on the grounds that the stability of the country might be affected. No action has since been taken on those six names.

Whilst the Cambodian officials may claim that further prosecutions would not be beneficial to the country, a recent survey carried out by the Documentation Center of Cambodia found in fact that a small majority of Cambodians polled felt that the court should look at further suspects. Overall 56.8% were in favour, whilst amongst the younger people asked 67.5% supported further investigations.

In the meantime, the delays in progressing the other prosecutions clearly raises a concern that Comrade Duch may end up being the only trial the ECCC ever actually completes. The three defendants in the second case Noun Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirithis are all suffering from health problems and may never make it to court.

So the excitement being generated in the international media is for a trial where the defendant has already confessed his guilt and expressed his remorse for his actions. According to his lawyer Francois Roux "Duch wishes to ask forgiveness from the victims but also from the Cambodian people. He will do so publicly. This is the very least he owes the victims."

Ultimately what can be expected from this first test of the ECCC? Clearly Duch's evidence will provide a valuable public record of the operation of Toul Sleng, and many are hoping that his evidence will provide some answers to the questions concerning what the Khmer Rouge did to their compatriots and why. His evidence may also provide some powerful testimony in relation to the other defendants due to be prosecuted by the ECCC. Cambodians certainly are aware of the moment of history and powerful potential the trial offers, as many queued to attend the first day of hearings.
Links to some of the coverage:
AP, BBC, Guardian, Irish Times, Reuters

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