At Last, Justice for Monsters

Closing Order Indicting Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch

by the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
45 pp., August 8, 2008

On February 17, a sixty-six-year-old man named Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, appeared before a mixed Cambodian-international tribunal—formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia—charged, in the words of the indictment against him, with “murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, rape, persecutions on political grounds, [and] other inhumane acts.” Kaing’s appearance, in what was a rather dull procedural session, marked the beginning of a long-awaited and long-postponed event, the trial of several of the figures deemed most responsible for the atrocities committed during the three years, eight months, and twenty days between 1975 and 1979 that the Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia. The tribunal starts hearing evidence at the end of March.

That the trial is even being held is in itself remarkable. It has been thirty years since the Khmer Rouge, after wreaking so much horror on Cambodia, were chased from power by Vietnam, and twelve years since Cambodia began negotiations with the UN on establishing a special court to try those most responsible for that horror. For much of that time, powerful global forces, including the United States, China, and most of the countries of Southeast Asia, opposed bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice. Indeed, because concern over Vietnamese domination of Cambodia took priority over the desire to make a reckoning with the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, these countries were in an informal alliance that kept the Khmer Rouge alive and its leaders at large.

And even though that opposition faded—with the United States in particular having become since the mid-1990s a strong supporter of prosecuting Khmer Rouge leaders—the tribunal in Phnom Penh will render only partial justice. Pol Pot himself, the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother Number One,” died in 1998, and several other leading figures of the movement are also dead. Nor will there be an examination of the actions of other countries in the long Cambodian affliction—the American bombing campaign between 1969 and 1973, for example, that claimed anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 civilian lives.

Moreover, the judges have so far decided to limit the trial to just five people: the four most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, and Ieng Thirith; plus the less senior Comrade Duch. Theoretically the Extraordinary Chambers is empowered to investigate and indict more of the many former Khmer Rouge leaders still at large, and the foreign coprosecutor, Robert Petit, seems ready to do so. But any such idea has been steadily opposed by the current Cambodian government, whose leader, Hun Sen, is himself a former Khmer Rouge official. Unless this changes—and it remains an open question—the tribunal’s focus on just five defendants might in effect grant a kind of unofficial immunity to numerous others who murdered and tortured and remain at large in Cambodia today, some as officials in the very government that is the trial’s cosponsor.

Still, despite its limited scope and these …

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