Thursday, September 16, 2010

Khmer Official Sentenced To 35 Years In Prison

At 8:30 on any given morning, a set of heavy gates swing open in front of a large compound in the heart of Phnom Penh. Within the compound walls are five grim and dilapidated buildings, the remains and the reminder of some of the worst atrocities in Cambodia's history.

Some 16,000 Cambodian men, women and children were tortured and killed at the Tuol Sleng, or S21, security prison during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The bodies were taken to the so-called Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and thrown into mass graves. Only 14 prisoners are believed to have survived at the secret prison.

In a photo obtained from the Cambodian courts, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, looks on during his sentencing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch

On Monday, a war crimes tribunal sentenced to 35 years in prison the commander of Tuol Sleng. Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, oversaw the brutality and executions at the prisons. The court ordered him to serve 19 years in prison. It shaved off 11 years for time served and five years more for being illegally detained by a military court. Duch was the first of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders to face trial. More than 1.5 million Cambodians perished from starvation or execution during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979

Duch was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. During a trial that lasted more than two months, he admitted his guilt but said he was only following orders from the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge. He asked for forgiveness and that he be acquitted.

Duch's trial was widely followed by many Cambodians. More than 25,000 people showed up during the proceedings — millions more watched the trial on national television.

For Muong Than, a former schoolteacher whose brother and uncle died at Tuol Sleng, the tribunal helps heal some of his emotional wounds. Muong Than first went to the prison in 1988, just two years after it became a national museum. At the time, he walked through the rooms of the former high school looking at where so many of his countrymen were tortured.

Muong Than says it was "shocking" when he came to a set of rooms showing photographs of many of those who had died in the prison. That was where he saw a final picture of his brother and his uncle, taken by their captors. "It was so sad, I stopped and cried," he says. Another decade passed before he had the strength to visit Tuol Sleng again.

Tens of thousands of people — Cambodians and tourists alike — visit Tuol Sleng every year. They wander through the three-story buildings that have been left much as they were in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown and fled Phnom Penh.

The classrooms were divided into small torture chambers. Some rooms contain just an iron bed with a shackle attached to it. Splatters of blood can still be seen on the floors, walls and ceiling. Old black-and-white photos hang on some of the walls. One shows a bird picking at the remains of a torture victim lying on an iron bed.

Some rooms were divided into smaller cells. Others were mass cells where prisoners were shackled together to long pieces of iron bar. The final room displays a large collection of skulls across one wall.

The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in its note-taking at Tuol Sleng. Each prisoner was recorded, photographed and given a number. There were precise details about interrogation and torture. Those documents were collected over the years and are housed at the Document Center of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh.

Duch was often present during the brutal interrogations, where the detained were subjected to electric shock, mock drownings, and had their fingernails and toenails pulled out. In one memo, a guard asks Duch what to do with the prisoners — six boys and three girls — accused of being enemies of the state. Duch wrote "Kill every last one" across the top of the memo. That and other documents were presented during Duch's trial.

The Cambodian war crimes tribunal was a long time in the making. The United Nations and the international community began the process more than a decade ago. But some Cambodian officials say there was resistance from the government, under Prime Minister Hun Sen, to put Khmer Rouge leaders on trial, saying it could spark a civil war. The government also wanted control over the court. Hun Sen was a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla.

Ultimately, there were legal compromises. Both Cambodian and international judges sit on the bench, creating concern that the panel may be biased in its judgment. To counterbalance that, a so-called supermajority has to be reached among the judges before passing sentence.

The trial has also cost more than expected. Delays meant that the initial $78 million slated for the overall trial was depleted by 2009. The international community has agreed to another $92 million over the next two years, which will go toward the trials of the other four Khmer Rouge leaders.

Sambath Reach, a spokesman for the tribunals, says that despite the delays and hurdles, "it's important the Khmer Rouge trials take place in Cambodia." Reach, who lost his father, mother and four brothers to the Khmer Rouge, points to other war crimes tribunals, which are far from where the atrocities took place. Some of the perpetrators of serious crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia are being tried in the Hague, and Rwandans accused of the 1994 genocide are facing justice in Arusha, Tanzania.

Duch's fate was followed by many Cambodians carrying the scars of the Khmer Rouge reign. Monday's trial was carried live on local and some international TV and radio. A wide audience watched the verdict.

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