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Cambodia: What is “justice” for 1.7 million dead?

The poem “The Hollow Men” (1925) concludes, “This is the way the world ends[,] not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot wrote in a different time and place, but the verse seemed apt as the first Khmer Rouge trial got under way Feb. 17, 2009 in a special tribunal in Phnom Penh. During the chaotic regime from 1975-79, some 1.7 million Cambodians were executed or died of illness, overwork or starvation. Kaing Khek Iev, also known as Duch – a slight, 66-year-old former mathematics teacher – sat quietly behind bulletproof glass as the court laid the groundwork for a full trial in March. But 30 years after the major fighting ended, what does “justice” mean for Cambodia?

Duch, who oversaw the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, became the first cadre to go on trial at the UN-assisted tribunal. He is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder. The charges stem from the deaths of 16,000 prisoners who were tortured at Tuol Sleng, or S-21, then taken to the killing fields at the edge of the city and executed. His trial was expected to last three or four months. If convicted, he faces a prison sentence of five years to life. The tribunal cannot impose the death penalty.

Of five Khmer Rouge leaders who have been arrested so far, only Duch has expressed remorse for his actions. In his defense he states that he was only following the orders of party leaders. Only a handful of the prisoners who entered S-21 survived. The prison, formerly a school, is now a genocide museum.

The other four Khmer Rouge detained by the tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), were arrested in 2007. They are not expected to go on trial until 2010. Aged 76-83, they are former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary; Sary’s wife, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith; former “Brother Number Two,” Nuon Chea; and the regime’s former head of state, Khieu Samphan. Charges against the four remain the subject of judicial investigation. All four have denied any wrongdoing.

Nearly one in person in four died under the Khmer Rouge, touching almost every Cambodian family. Survivors hope the trials will educate young Cambodians about an era they know little about. More than half the country’s 14 million people were born after Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was ousted in 1979.

Recent research by the Human Rights Center at the University of California in Berkeley found limited knowledge about the tribunal among a sample of 1,000 Cambodians. Fewer than one in 10 knew that five Khmer Rouge suspects were awaiting trial. However, 90 percent of the respondents said members of the regime should be held responsible for their crimes.

The ECCC was created in 2003 after years of negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government. It incorporates a panel of five Cambodian and international judges. Critics have accused the court of corruption and say the government of Premier Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge fighter, has tried to protect the regime’s ex-cadres from justice.

The ECCC has the power to award moral and collective reparations to victims, although these are likely to be symbolic rather than material measures. Loved ones who died under the Khmer Rouge cannot be restored to their families, and any monetary offer would be inadequate. Many Khmer Rouge leaders are dead, or have lived beyond Cambodia’s average lifespan of 62 years. But telling one’s story, demanding accountability or hearing an admission of the truth are not just symbolic. The court proceedings could further the process of healing, reconciliation and reintegration among families, villages and the nation.

“The Khmer Rouge denied victims their humanity, and in doing so the Khmer Rouge lost their own humanity,” says defense attorney Francois Roux. “The purpose of this trial is to allow people on both sides to regain their humanity.” That seems a worthy goal of justice, both for the victims and their oppressors.

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