This week Cambodians encountered for the first time the daily grind of justice at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
On Wednesday, the two-day hearing over whether the eight-year detention, without trial, of S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, should have any bearing on his prosecution before the ECCC came to a quiet close.
The audience at the court was variously impassioned and bored—several observers were spotted asleep in their chairs on Wednesday morning.
Inside the small trial chamber where Duch faced the five red-robed judges who will determine whether he can get out of jail, there was high talk of human rights and strange new words—Barayagwiza, Pillastre, Bernard—detailing legal cases involving people in far-off countries. Outside the chamber, the language was plainer: Vengeance. Murder. Torture.
“I’m coming here to get angry at Duch,” said Oum Pom, 76, who said a dozen of his family members were killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“I want to ask them why did you kill? Why did I work so hard for rice and you only fed me for one month and let me starve for the rest of the year,” he added.
On Tuesday, more than 500 people packed into the ECCC’s main courtroom to see the tribunal’s first public hearing. On Wednesday morning about 200 showed up and by the afternoon, only a few dozen, most of them journalists, remained.
Many came to the ECCC this week hoping simply to glimpse the face of the man they believe is responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
They got little more.
For now, Duch himself had little to say. He spent most of the two-day hearing sitting calmly behind a curved wooden dock beneath the fluorescent lights of the ECCC’s modest pretrial chamber. He slipped his feet in and out of his thick sandals, occasionally running his hands lightly over his mouth.
Many hope the ECCC will root out long-silenced secrets of the Khmer Rouge, and this week Duch’s lawyers emphasized that their client has always said he would cooperate with the tribunal.
It won’t be clear to what extent he’s making good on that promise until the trial starts. For now, Duch’s testimony from interviews with co-investigating judges is confidential, per the rules of the court.
When called to address judges in public, Duch was a study in extreme deference.
Asked by judges Wednesday to clarify whether he had been tortured during his eight-year detention in Phnom Penh’s military prison—as his lawyer Kar Savuth appeared to suggest Tuesday—Duch rose and pressed his hands together in an earnest gesture of respect.
“Please repeat the question,” he said.
After listening carefully, he said, “Please, I would like Mr Kar Savuth to repeat his statement because there is no such statement in his speech. So far as I know my lawyer did not use the word torture inflicted on me.”
Outside, a ripple went through the crowd. For many of them, the word torture has a too real, too personal resonance.
Moeun Sonn, who wrote, with historian Henri Locard, “Prisoner of the Khmer Rouge,” said his head was shoved in a plastic bag and he was made to confess to being a member of the CIA and the KGB.
“Duch tortured people during questioning, but now they questioned him without torture, so he must tell the truth,” he said. “I will be disappointed if the court releases him on bail,” he added.
Sothea Sambath, whose father was “smashed” on November 17, 1976—Duch’s birthday—said he had come to the court just to get a look at the man he believes was responsible for his father’s death.
“He was the last person to see my father alive,” he said.
Sothea Sambath, like most observers, watched the proceedings by live video feed from the tribunal’s main trial chamber, which has yet to be outfitted for legal proceedings. Echoing a common frustration, he said he was disappointed to not see Duch himself, but his sometimes blurry, video image.
For Sothea Sambath, as for many victims, the defense’s argument that Duch should be released because his eight-year incarceration was a grave violation of his rights under international humanitarian law was “shocking.”
Human rights, he said, were in short supply within the walls of S-21.
“Make no mistake. He is not a victim,” Sothea Sambath said of Duch.
Duch’s defense, however, argued that true justice will be found only by enshrining the very principles the Khmer Rouge’s security apparatus allegedly dismissed, principles that they argue demand his release.
Under Cambodian law, pre-trial detention beyond three years is illegal, plain and simple, and it is the ECCC’s job to right that wrong, sooner rather than later, Kar Savuth and Duch’s French attorney, Francois Roux, argued.
Kek Galabru, president of rights group Licadho, said people she’s spoken with understand the principle of human rights for all in their heads but not their hearts.
“Emotionally, they don’t want to see Duch outside the detention center, but they understand what Roux said,” she explained.
Prosecutors argue that Duch’s alleged crimes were so extreme that he must be detained, not only to ensure that the few valuable witnesses who survived S-21 can testify freely, but also because Duch might try to flee prosecution.
“As the co-investigating judges have concluded, the case file amply demonstrates and as the charged person himself conceded, he bears at least some direct responsibility in the detention, torture, and death of over 14,000 men, women, and children,” Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said.
Prosecutors also argue that Duch was only able to live unperturbed for two decades—until his 1999 unmasking by journalist Nic Dunlop—because he concealed his identity, living, variously, under the names Yim Keav, Guek Eav, Duch, and Hang Pin. Prosecutors say his notoriety could now imperil his safety.
But Duch’s attorneys and family members said Wednesday that they weren’t worried.
“I am not concerned about his security. No one wants revenge. No one hates him,” said Duch’s younger sister Hang Kim Hong, 50, who also goes by Kaing Kim Hoeung.
In 1996, Duch was stabbed and his wife murdered, an attack that Kar Savuth dismissed as a simple robbery.
Duch’s three sons, his pregnant daughter, and two of his sisters came to Wednesday’s hearing. They had very different ideas about what justice would mean.
“If he’s not freed, it won’t be a fair trial,” said his sister, Hang Kim Hong.
She said she was disappointed she hadn’t yet been able to visit her brother in jail, after making the journey from Battambang’s Samlot district, where she lives.
Duch’s son, Hang Seav Heang, 28, said he didn’t know whether his father was responsible for mass murder but that he had been a good dad.
“I don’t know about that time, but he is a fine father,” he said, adding: “He is not a brutal man. All the neighbors love him.”
Duch’s family members dodged the eager cameras of dozens of journalists. After the hearing, his sister and daughter watched silently from a window as Duch, slim and wiry as a child, was driven back to the ECCC’s detention center.
Judges have not said when they will rule on his continued detention.
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