Revisiting the Killing Fields
Image Credit: Mendhak

Revisiting the Killing Fields

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Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, stood as Judge Nil Nonn read the charge sheet. Around him, Muslim Chams and Buddhist monks sat patiently with ordinary Cambodians, diplomats, aid workers and journalists. Among them were hundreds of victims—survivors of the Khmer Rouge—who along with millions more across the country waited anxiously for the verdict.

Late last month, a freshly-built courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh became the focus of justice in a nation craving admonishment of the Khmer Rouge and international recognition that atrocities committed here between April 1975 and January 1979 were indeed war crimes.

Inside the courtroom, Judge Nonn detailed charges that included murder, torture, extermination and crimes against humanity. As he rattled off the names of victims, whose relatives had featured prominently in court hearings, viewers in the public gallery became fidgety, while outside hundreds sat on the muddy lawns listening intently to public address systems.

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The gathered crowds were a scene repeated in thousands of villages across the country, from the northern reaches of the Mekong Delta to its coastal towns in the south. Local TV and radio networks had been ordered to broadcast the verdict in Case 001, the first international effort to prosecute the surviving ultra-Maoists leaders, live from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC).

The public’s anxiety had manifested itself since closing arguments seven months earlier when Duch, the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the ECCC, had thrown a last minute spanner into the legal works and changed his plea of no contest to not guilty. He’d also sacked his French lawyer Francois Roux and demanded a replacement from the only country to recognise Pol Pot during his time in power—China.

That Duch had overseen ghastly ritual torture and the deaths of thousands at the S-21 prison seemed undeniable, but the Christian convert and former mathematics teacher had created an avenue for acquittal and Cambodians are used to fearing the worst.

So when Nonn finally released the guilty verdict, reached by three Cambodian and two international judges, the sense of relief was palpable. Cheers and a few tears followed as people hugged and shook hands. Commonsense and a touch of United Nations justice had prevailed.

Nonn sentenced Duch to 35 years in jail minus 11 years for time already served. A further five years was also taken off because six of those years in prison were spent in illegal incarceration. On this reading, Duch has only 19 years left to serveand, under standard sentencing procedures, Duch could see one-third of his 35-year term removed for good behavior.

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