Marking a day many believed would never come, former S-21 chairman Kaing Guek Eav on Tuesday was at last called to account for systematic extermination that made his regime a global emblem for mass murder.
Tuesday’s start of trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia surmounted a decade of preparation and pitfalls in which international and internal cooperation over the court several times verged on collapse, and marked the beginning of a judicial reckoning delayed by 30 years of war and negotiations.
At 8:30 am, the accused, better known as Duch, 66, was taken by automobile escort over the two dozen meters separating the tribunal’s detention center from the courthouse. Dressed in a crisp, blue Oxford shirt and gray slacks, Duch sat attentively through the five hours of hearings, pressing a set of headphones to one ear to follow simultaneous interpretation of remarks in French and English.
In indicting Duch in August, judicial investigators described him as an obsessive character lacking in empathy who presided over a campaign of extraordinary violence.
In his 32 months as head of the Khmer Rouge special branch known as S-21, secret police under Duch’s command extracted men, women and children from nearly every ministry, military unit and zone in the nation, leading to the torture, mutilation and murder of at least 12,380 people, investigators found.
Though Tuesday’s proceedings did not concern the allegations against Duch, they were nevertheless tinged with history, attracting a throng of international press and members of the public, who filled the 500-seat public gallery—the largest of any courtroom in the world, according to the tribunal.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing was adjourned Tuesday, International Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said the court had indeed made history.
“Though this was essentially a technical hearing, it is still an important day, even a great day for Cambodia, for justice, and, at the risk of being grandiloquent, for humanity,” he said. “Today, there was the most public symbol of the will of Cambodia and the international community to allow a measure of justice to be rendered to more than a million and a half women, men and children who perished during the period of Democratic Kampuchea.”
The artist Vann Nath, 63, who survived internment at Tuol Sleng, where S-21 was long headquartered, said the proceedings were mysterious to him.
“I still don’t understand yet,” he said, adding that on Tuesday he had seen Duch’s face for only the second time since being his prisoner. “When he was in power, he was brutal. I was afraid to look at his face. Now, he’s just an old man.”
Since his arrest and incarceration in 1999, Duch has consistently accepted responsibility for the atrocities of S-21, leading some participants to describe the process begun Tuesday as the trial-length equivalent of a guilty plea.
The defense has not merely acquiesced in Duch’s prosecution, however.
Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn announced that defense lawyers Francois Roux and Kar Savuth have informed the court they will argue that charges of premeditated murder and torture, added in December as the result of a prosecution appeal, have passed a 10-year statute of limitations and should be dropped.
Roux also announced that as the trial progressed, the defense would again seek Duch’s provisional release by claiming that his 510-week pretrial detention, nearly three times as long as the Khmer Rouge regime itself, constituted a grave abuse of his rights and the legal process. The court’s Pre-Trial Chamber in 2007 found that the matter of Duch’s imprisonment since 1999 without trial was out of its jurisdiction.
In addition to preliminary objections, Tuesday’s initial hearing also considered victim applications to be recognized as civil parties and proposed witness lists.
Following the first hour of arguments, live television broadcasts ended and members of the media were forbidden to make audio recordings of discussions of proposed witnesses and civil party applications.
British barrister Karim Khan, newly appointed as a civil party lawyer, said he had filed a motion Monday asking the court to extend a deadline for civil party applications to allow Norng Chanphal, who was discovered at Tuol Sleng as an 8-year-old by Vietnamese forces three days after the 1979 capture of Phnom Penh, to be recognized as a victim by the tribunal.
The ECCC is the first modern tribunal to allow victims full procedural rights.
Confirming the fears of civil party lawyers, Norng Chanphal, now 38, revealed last week that he had missed by two days the Feb 2 deadline to apply to become a civil party.
Roux objected to the last minute arrivals of new civil parties and evidence, such as Vietnamese archival films showing Norng Chanphal’s rescue, which prosecutors in January asked be added into evidence.
“For several weeks, we have been witnessing an escalation, an accumulation of new witnesses, of new documents…through the press,” he said. “Here, the defense says, enough.”
“If you prolong the delay for this civil party, tomorrow how many will ask you for the same thing? And how will you respect the rights of the accused?”
Khan said Norng Chanphal’s presence in the courtroom would change little for Duch.
“It is beyond my wit to see what prejudice is occasioned by this application to the defense,” he said. “The floodgates argument of your honors being deluged by an incessant waterfall of applications seems to be a doomsday scenario for which there is no basis.”
Prosecutors have indicated they believed the court could take 40 trial days to hear the 35 witnesses they have asked to summon. The defense asked the court to summon eight character and five expert witnesses to be heard over 23 hours and 15 minutes, or four and a half trial days. Witness lists submitted by civil parties remained incomplete Tuesday.
Of the 94 civil-party applications accepted in the S-21 trial, 28 were submitted during the investigation and have been recognized, while the court Tuesday provisionally accepted the remaining 66, 45 of whom have asked that their names not be used at trial and seven of whom have requested the court take measures to protect them.
Khan on Tuesday told the court that the 30-year wait had proved too long for one civil party who died shortly before the start of trial. The widower of that civil party, who was identified only by the pseudonym D24-25, wishes to take his late wife’s place.
“This of course is one of the many lamentable consequences of the delay in proceedings between the alleged commission of the offenses and the trial,” he said.