Khmer Rouge jailer verdict due

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bou Meng (Photo: AFP)
Theary Seng

July 22, 2010
ABC Radio Australia

The international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, will hand down its verdict on its first defendant. Former khmer rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Euv, better known as Comrade Duch suprised court observors by changing his plea, then sacking his international legal counsel.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Theary Seng, president of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation; Anne Heindel, legal adviser for the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam); Bou Meng, s21 prisoner

CARMICHAEL: The man whose voice you can hear is called Bou Meng. He is an artist who last year gave testimony against his former jailer, Comrade Duch. In this clip Bou Meng is telling the international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh about appalling conditions at a Khmer Rouge prison called S-21. Bou Meng was lucky - he is one of perhaps a dozen survivors of S-21. At least 20,000 others who passed through the prison were executed.

It was the signature of Comrade Duch that appeared on many of those execution orders. Comrade Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, was one of the regime's most valuable implementers of its policy towards suspected traitors. As the head of S-21, his role was to oversee the torture of all who were brought there, extract confessions, and then sign off on their execution. The confessions - made under terrible torture - would see yet more people arrested, brought in, tortured and executed as the revolution began to consume the country. Duch was tried as one of those who are considered 'most responsible' for the crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and left 1.7 million people dead from execution, starvation, overwork and disease. When the verdict is pronounced on Monday, Duch will be the only Khmer Rouge member to have been judged by an international war crimes tribunal.

Cambodian-American Theary Seng was the first person to file as a civil party at the tribunal. She spent much of last year observing Duch's 77-day trial. What were her impressions.

SENG: The Duch trial was a test run, and it went overall very well. It went very well in creating and generating the interest among the larger population and giving out information to the public about the Khmer Rouge era. It was interesting in hearing and seeing Duch himself speak in person. So overall it was a good test run for the core trial - and that's of the senior Khmer Rouge leaders in case.

CARMICHAEL: In the face of overwhelming evidence, Duch's defence strategy was one of mitigation: He would accept responsibility, express remorse, cooperate with the court, and hope for a reduced sentence.

The strategy was laid out over nine months of hearings by Duch's international defence lawyer Francois Roux. It is worth pointing out that the tribunal has a hybrid structure, which means Cambodians and international staff work in tandem in key roles. For that reason Duch has one international lawyer and one Cambodian lawyer, both with equal standing. In the final days of the trial, the defence team self-destructed. With Duch's blessing - and without Roux's knowledge - his Cambodian lawyer told the court that international law did not apply, that Duch had merely been following orders, and that the tribunal should release him.

It was a remarkable turnaround. The reasons behind that dramatic change remain unclear, not least since international law clearly does apply. Earlier this month Duch's capacity to surprise surfaced again when he fired Francois Roux as his international defence lawyer. Anne Heindel is a legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an archive of papers on the Khmer Rouge period. She thinks firing Roux - who was widely seen as having done a good job - could be a way for Duch to prepare for an appeal.

HEINDEL: It could either be a strategy for claiming ineffective assistance of counsel on appeal, or it could be something totally different and personal. It's just really hard to say.

CARMICHAEL: As a seasoned observer of the court, what stood out for her during the trial?

HEINDEL: The interesting thing I think was at the end when Duch decided to have his last statement be a history of the Communist Party since the 1950s. It didn't seem like a statement of remorse - one would have thought he would have used the opportunity to again apologise to the victims. But instead he ran through a very academic piece that only experts in the topic would have found of interest. But that seemed to be what he wanted people to understand - that was his truth of why things happened.

CARMICHAEL: Monday will reveal what the judges think of Duch's version of the truth. He is now 68, so if he is found guilty - as most people expect - any sentence longer than 25 years will probably amount to life.


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