Tribunal hearing a milestone in beleaguered Khmer Rouge trials

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am

After years of delay, Cambodia will today hold the first public tribunal hearing of a senior Khmer Rouge leader since the murderous regime was overthrown in 1979.

Kaing Guek Eav, 65, who is better known by the pseudonym Duch, will go before the Cambodia's UN-backed tribunal charged with crimes against humanity.

Duch's lawyers will argue today for his release from detention, where he has been held by the Cambodian government for the past 81/2 years.

Until recently, Duch - who was at the heart of the Khmer Rouge killing machine - was the only senior leader under arrest. Now four others have joined him.

The Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, was arrested yesterday.

The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, thwarting justice and taking to his grave the reason why the ultra-Maoist regime ruled Cambodia with such brutal force from 1975-79.

Ta Mok, who was Pol Pot's military chief, died last year.

Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders are in their twilight years and it has become a race against time to bring them to trial and try to answer the question of why they killed so many of their countrymen. Under the Khmer Rouge, 1.7 million Cambodians died through overwork, starvation, illness or execution. Cambodia lost almost a quarter of its population of seven million due to the pursuit of a crazed agrarian ideology.

Cambodians are now seeking closure to a horrific chapter of their country's history through the tribunal. A trial was held by the Vietnamese in 1979 after they invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. However, the trial served more for propaganda than justice. Negotiations began between the Cambodian government and the UN seven years ago to establish the present tribunal.

At the hearing today will be Duch's French lawyer, Francois Roux. Mr Roux is best known for being part of the defence team that acted on behalf of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted in the US of conspiring to commit terrorism and kill Americans in the September 11 attacks. Mr Roux has also worked as a defence lawyer for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

It is expected that Duch's lawyers will argue that his rights have been violated by him being unlawfully detained for such a long period. If this argument succeeds then it is possible that he may be released and even compensated for the time he was held.

As well, if the charge of crimes against humanity that is pending against Duch, were eventually proven, it's possible that any sentence would take into account the time he has spent under arrest.

The hearing today is an important milestone for the trouble-ridden tribunal. It provides good publicity at a time when the tribunal needs to secure more funding. The original budget of US$56.3 million will run out early next year when the trials are scheduled.

Today's public hearing, which will set the scene for the trials to begin, will also shift the focus away from the scandal surrounding the administration of the tribunal.

A UN audit was scathing of the Cambodian administration of the tribunal. It said the body had been employing unqualified staff at inflated salaries, without a proper recruitment process. The internal UN report was only made public after much criticism of the UN's initial decision to keep it private.

Separately, the UN's head of the tribunal, Michelle Lee, is retiring and her replacement is expected to be appointed next year.

Duch's hearing will focus on his detention. Duch was the director of the Phnom Penh-based Security Prison 21 (S-21), which was also known as Tuol Sleng, for three years. There, in the classrooms of what used to be a high school, enemies of the Khmer Rouge were tortured and killed and at least 14,000 Cambodians were slaughtered under Duch's supervision. Torture methods included beatings, rape, electrocution and water boarding.

Duch kept records of interrogations of prisoners and their forced confessions. When an urgent order was made in 1979 to kill the remaining inmates of the prison

and leave, there was no time to destroy all of the records. Some of those are at the core of the prosecution's case against the senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

But those wanting to hear Duch's reasons for why he carried out the execution of thousands of Cambodian men, some of whom were his colleagues, extended family and friends, as well as women and children, will have to wait until next year.

Duch and other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are then expected to enter a plea that they were just following orders.

Khieu Samphan recently released a book about the regime, in which he writes that Pol Pot was responsible for all of the Khmer Rouge policies.