War crimes trial holds out hope for Cambodia

Survivors of the killing fields are looking to a UN-sponsored court for justice, 34 years after the Khmer Rouge seized power. Andrew Buncombe reports

And yet, as Cambodia's landmark genocide tribunal finally began to hear evidence last week, in a specially constructed courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the details that emerged could also have been described as being in another language: that of horror.

It is 35 years since the black-clad Khmer Rouge guerrillas swept out of the jungles of Cambodia and seized control of Phnom Penh, brutally forcing their country into an uncompromising, Maoist-inspired revolution that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead. And the horror of their four-year rule – a time of starvation, mass execution and sickness – still resonates, but it also mystifies. "For 30 years, a generation of Cambodians have been struggling to get answers for their fate," one of the two joint prosecutors, Chea Leang, told the court. "Justice will be done. History demands it."

Comrade Duch, or Kaing Guek Eav, is the first of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders to stand before the UN-sponsored court, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The other four defendants – the regime's second-in-command, Nuon Chea; the former foreign minister, Ieng Sary; the former social affairs minister, Ieng Thirith; and the former head of state, Khieu Samphan – all held more senior posts than Duch.

But the 66-year-old's position as head of Tuol Sleng prison placed him at the very heart of the regime's killing operation. And the enduring horror of the prison, in a former secondary school in Phnom Penh, is among the reasons the regime's brutality today holds such a place in the popular imagination.

It was at Tuol Sleng, or S-21, that thousands of alleged enemies of the regime were brought to be tortured, interrogated and dispatched for execution on the so-called killing fields at the edge of the city. Of the estimated 14,000 people sent to the prison, just 12 are known to have survived. Today, six of those are still alive. Among those killed was John Dewhirst, a teacher from Newcastle, who was captured by the Khmer Rouge aboard a motorised junk off the Cambodian coast and taken to the jail. Today, the prison is a museum and an essential stop for any visitor to Cambodia. The photographs of thousands of prisoners, taken by their guards, stare from the walls. The metal bed frames to which they were shackled remain in place. Yet even that haunting place provides only a glimpse of the horrors that took place inside the former classrooms.

On Monday, dressed in a pressed white shirt tucked neatly into his trousers, Duch sat, seemingly without emotion, as the indictment was read to the court, detailing the torture and murder that he oversaw. His prisoners, the court was told, were thrown to their deaths, bludgeoned, their stomachs slit, smothered with plastic bags and their blood drained away by medics until they collapsed. The children of prisoners were apparently taken from their parents, taken to the third storey, and dropped to the ground floor. "Several witnesses said that prisoners were killed using steel clubs, cart axles and water pipes to hit the base of their necks," the indictment continued. "Prisoners were then kicked into the pits, where their handcuffs were removed. Finally, the guards either cut open their bellies or their throats."

What makes the drama of the trial even more compelling is that Duch has not sought to deny his involvement, although he previously rejected the claims of witnesses that he personally killed anyone. Indeed, just a day after the wrenching list of allegations was read to him, he spoke of his desire for forgiveness.

Taking off his glasses and putting aside a prepared statement, Duch turned to look at the 500 or so people seated in the court's public gallery. "My current plea is that I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness," he said, vowing to give his full co-operation to the tribunal. "This is the only remedy that can help me to relieve all the sorrow and crimes I have committed."

He added: "At the beginning I only prayed to ask for forgiveness from my parents, but later I prayed to ask forgiveness from the whole nation ... I wish to express my deep regretfulness and my heartfelt sorrow."

Among those sitting and listening to Duch were Chum Mei and Bou Meng, two of the handful of S-21 survivors. "I felt a little feeling of relief but I don't trust him 100 per cent," said Chum Mei, a former mechanic who survived because of his ability to help maintain the prison's machinery. "I know Duch well. This man, he has many tricks. He just said these words because he wants the court to reduce his sentence."

Vann Nath is another who survived the horrors of Tuol Sleng. Listed as a possible witness, the 63-year-old painter has been barred from attending this part of the trial. In a recent interview with The Independent on Sunday at his gallery in Phnom Penh, he revealed how he had survived because Duch came to learn of his skills as a painter. Separated from the other prisoners, Vann Nath was put to work producing portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

"I saw a lot of things during my year in the prison," he said, surrounded by paintings showing scenes from Tuol Sleng, the colours dark and menacing except for the glare of the prison's bare lights. "It was [worst] during the day. They were interrogating new prisoners who'd come. There was torture, screaming, lots of activity. I saw Duch every day, he came to my place every day." The white-haired man, now in less than perfect health, saw Duch last year when the court held preliminary hearings and travelled to the notorious killing fields site located close to a village called Choeung Ek. There, Duch had broken down and wept, though Vann Nath could not see him very clearly. Asked how he would feel to finally see Duch in court, he said: "The most significant thing is that I have lived to see the trial. I cannot guess what my feelings will be, but I hope for now that we can get a kind of justice."

The move to place Duch and his fellow defendants before the tribunal has not been without controversy. Indeed, the Cambodian government, headed by the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been accused of blocking the remit of the court in order to protect former regime officials now in senior positions within the establishment. Others, too, have expressed concerns that the process could be divisive for the country rather than healing. In a nation where half the population is aged below 25, and where the Khmer Rouge's rule has only recently become part of the school curriculum, some might be inclined, in that utterly inadequate cliché, to let sleeping dogs lie.

Others disagree. Professor David Chandler, a Khmer Rouge expert and author of the study Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison, said: "I think the trials are immensely important because the people who had been in command positions in [the regime] need to face some of their accusers. Whether this will help Cambodia deal with its past on a mass scale is impossible to say, but the fact that the perpetrators of the documented crimes against humanity that occurred are not immune from prosecution is a start towards ending the culture of impunity which has affected those in power in Cambodia throughout its history."

The Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, seizing on anti-government feelings that had been exacerbated by a massive US bombing campaign which was a spill-over from the war in Vietnam. When they swept into Phnom Penh they were initially cheered, but within days the cadres were forcing people to leave their homes and possessions and to march into the countryside, where work camps were set up.

The regime fell in January 1979, when Vietnamese forces entered the country, and the Khmer Rouge began a long guerrilla war. Duch slipped out of Phnom Penh, converted to Christianity and worked with a US charity on the Cambodian border. He was only brought before the tribunal after he was discovered in 1999 by the Irish-born photojournalist Nic Dunlop, author of The Lost Executioner.

Mr Dunlop was this week in court to watch the proceedings. "My thought is that if this is going to have an impact on Cambodia it has to get outside of these walls," he said. "So far that has failed to happen. While this whole thing is costing $143m, only $50,000 of that has been set aside for outreach projects."

Some hope that once the tribunal has completed its task, Cambodia can work on putting its dark past behind it. Soysrey Line, a 22-year-old student who works as a waitress at a street food stall in the centre of Phnom Penh, said she feared the Khmer Rouge had tarnished the name of Cambodia around the world. "People know that Pol Pot was Khmer," she said. "He has created this bad image."

The Khmer Rouge years: Cambodia's trip to hell and back again

1975

Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, seizes Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, overthrowing US-backed Lon Nol. Prince Sihanouk becomes head of state. "Year Zero" sees towns and cities cleared in an attempt to create an agrarian society. Money becomes worthless and religion is banned; 1.7 million people will die in the years to 1979.

1976

Cambodia renamed Democratic Kampuchea. Prince Sihanouk resigns and is replaced by Khieu Samphan with Pol Pot as prime minister.

1978

Series of Khmer Rouge cross-border raids sparks invasion from Vietnam.

1979

Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge forces retreat to the Thai border, and Vietnamese troops occupy the capital. The People's Republic of Kampuchea is founded.

1993

UN-run elections lead to an unstable coalition between Prince Sihanouk and a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla.

1998

Pol Pot dies in the jungle after being ousted as Khmer Rouge leader the year before. The following year, the last of the guerrillas surrender.

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