The 500 seats of the tribunal’s public room were filled Monday morning as the first trial for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime opened in Phnom Penh. Ambassadors and other dignitaries sat in the front, with NGO workers and other foreign visitors sprinkled throughout. But the majority in the room were Cambodians of all ages, some civil parties and victims, others, students visibly too young to have known Democratic Kampuchea.
They spoke in low voices while waiting for the judges to enter. Duch, the former chairman of the S-21 detention center, whom they came to see, sat between two guards.
“He’s there, in the white shirt,” said one man, pointing.
“He must really feel like an animal in a cage,” another said of the glass wall separating the court from the public, reminiscent of those that isolate dangerous predators in metropolitan zoos.
Duch scanned the audience with a peaceful gaze that belied the fact that he stands accused of crimes against humanity and at least 12,380 deaths. It was the only chance for many to get a look at the notorious prison commander; once at the bar, he had his back to the public for the remainder of the day.
“The trial has been delayed for many years already,” said Dy Ratha, 62, of Phnom Penh. “I want Duch to say everything. I will be satisfied if he speaks the truth. His confession will mean that the court will have found some sort of justice for me.”
Duch spoke, politely answering Presiding Judge Nil Nonn’s questions about his identity, and later reading along and taking notes as his indictment was recited. His ap-
parent lack of reaction—only a momentarily heaving chest possibly indicating emotion—irritated some.
“He didn’t feel any shock, but we looked at him with shock,” said Yim Ing, 45, who lost three relatives to the Khmer Rouge and traveled from Prey Veng province for the trial.
The three-hour reading of Duch’s 45-page indictment bored some to the point of dozing off, but not those for whom the expose of torture and executions was a reminder of exper-
In an otherwise-silent courtroom, a woman cried out and held her head in her hands, refusing a neighbor’s offering to help her outside for a break. Tears welled up in the eyes of other women by her side. Dy Ratha said she chose to pray during the reading.
The court’s decision to adjourn at 3 pm, pushing opening statements to today, sparked a murmur of disappointment in the audience. One man cried out at the court.
“I’m shocked that the whole day isn’t being used,” said Amnesty International’s Cambodia resear-
cher Brittis Edman, who explained she was concerned that victims who have made the expense of traveling here for the hearing would be frustrated. But, she added, the day remained positive.
“It’s more of a historical day than a disappointing day,” she said.
The day was not only significant for the survivors of S-21 or the relatives of those who didn’t leave the prison camp alive.
“To me, [Duch] represents all the Khmer Rouge,” said Oum Nuphea, who was 10 years old when Pol Pot’s peasant army entered Phnom Penh. His father, a pilot and colonel in the Khmer Republic army, was sent for re-education and never returned.
“He didn’t go to S-21, but in camp S-X, somewhere,” said Oum Nuph-
ea, now 44 and a pilot too. His mother also died, as well as three of four siblings, during the Khmer Rouge regime. He said he expected explanations from Duch, maybe an apology, but what matters most to him is a guilty verdict.
“I’m coming back here. I am happy to turn the page,” he said. “A never-ending story is not good for people.”