Cambodian war crimes tribunal opens to hand down 1st verdict for Khmer Rouge’s chief jailer

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cambodia war crimes trial opens to issue verdict

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal opened Monday to hand down a verdict in the first trial of a senior member of the Khmer Rouge regime that turned Cambodia into a vast killing field three decades ago.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, arrived Monday at the court in a bullet-proof car and was whisked inside by security guards. Dressed in a light purple shirt, he sat impassively in the dock as he listened to the chief judge review the proceedings.

During the course of his 77-day trial, he admitted to heading Toul Sleng, a top secret detention center for the worst “enemies” of the state. More than 16,000 people passed through its gates before they were killed.

Duch is widely expected to be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and many people in this still-traumatized nation are anxiously awaiting the sentence. Anything short of the maximum life behind bars could trigger public outrage.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, medical neglect, slave-like working conditions and execution under the Maoist regime that sought to turn the country into an agrarian utopia from 1975-79. Their bodies were dumped in shallow mass graves that still dot the countryside.

The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 and four other top members of the Khmer Rouge are awaiting trial.

Unlike the other defendants, Duch (pronounced DOIK) was not among the ruling clique and is the only major figure of the regime to have expressed remorse, even offering at one point to face a public stoning.

A former math teacher, Duch joined Pol Pot’s movement in 1967. Ten years later, he was the trusted head of its ultimate killing machine, S-21, which became the code name for Tuol Sleng.

Only 14 prisoners are thought to have survived ordeals at the prison that included medieval-like tortures to extract “confessions” from supposed enemies of the regime, followed by executions and burials in mass graves outside Phnom Penh. The gruesome litany of torture included pulling out prisoners’ toenails, administering electric shocks, waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — and medical experiments that ended in death.

Duch’s surprise request on the final day to be acquitted and freed, after weeks of saying he was sorry, left many wondering if his contrition was sincere. Some worry he will get off lightly.

Prosecutors asked that he face 40 years in prison, but because the 67-year-old has mitigated with the court and already spent 11 years in detention, there is a chance he’ll get off easier.

Hundreds of villagers — many who lost family members during the Khmer Rouge — attended the hearing.

“Anything less than life behind bars would be a bad example for our younger generation,” said Muth Try, 55, who lost two brothers during the Khmer Rouge. He was one of more than 500 villagers lining up to get into the court.


Live coverage of tribunal:

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