I was fortunate to attend the Khmer Rouge Trials again today, held outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This trial is for Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch," the commanding officer of the infamous S21, a school turned torture facility where approximately 14000 people were murdered under his charge.
I was surprised by the low attendance in the courtroom audience. I had heard that public interest was waning since the beginning of the trial, but I still expected more. When I arrived at 8:30, all 470+ seats were empty, except for court staff. As I waited for the proceedings to begin at 9am, about 60 people slowly trickled in. All but a few were foreigners, and most wore ID badges indicating that they were a member of the media, an NGO volunteer somehow connected with the trial, or staff of the court. I recalled a comment made by my friend Sochiet the night before, that “though my grandfather was murdered by the Khmer Rouge, it seemed lost in the past.” He said that for him it was more important to move on. While the trial is certainly a defining moment for many survivors, I know so many people who feel the same as Sochiet. It makes me wonder how many people are really paying attention to the proceedings?
Today the trial revolved around the testimony of Chan Voeun, a dark skinned, frail man at age 56. He claimed to be a guard at the M-13 prison under Duch, the commanding officer. M-13 was apparently a smaller, earlier version of the more infamous S-21, which Duch later went on to administrate. Events occurring at M-13 are outside the court's jurisdiction, but are being re-told to extrapolate a better picture of S-21 and Duch's personality.
M-13 Prison held a total of 70 people—families—mothers, fathers and children. All but three were murdered—most of them tortured to death. Prisoners were kept in tiny cells or underground pits and subsisted on watery gruel. The prison guards fared only a little better, living on thicker gruel themselves. According to Duch, they even slept in the prison pits as well. Voeun stated in his testimony that many (if not all) of the prisoners were eventually killed and discarded in 3 mass graves that he found while secretly hunting a deer behind the prison.
Voeun described gruesome torture scenes in which Duch allegedly used a gasoline rag, lit on the end of a stick, to burn the breasts of a female victim. Crying, he also recalled an event where Duch allegedly shot and killed Voeun’s uncle in front of him. Voeun described Duch as someone who “was happy when he tortured people.” Yet Duch told the court that he is sorry for what he did at M-13—that it all was an important matter and still “affects me psychologically.”
Voeun himself became a prisoner at M-13 after helping 3 prisoners—one of them his friend—escape. He later fled the prison himself and sought the aid of his village chief to remain free.
Duch, now an evangelical Christian, is the only defendant to admit guilt, seek forgiveness and agree to cooperate with the court. Yet ultimately he disputed much of Voeun’s testimony, claiming that Voeun was never on the staff at M-13. While Duch agreed that some of his statements about the layout and condition of the prison were factual, he said many of the stories Voeun relayed were distorted, second-hand information or outright lies. Indeed there were discrepancies in Voeun’s testimony—at times he claimed he was too far away to see whether Duch himself shot his uncle, or the methods Duch used when torturing certain victims, yet at other times he claimed to be very close to the incidents and described them in great detail. Likewise, he claimed that he saw Duch shoot another KR officer with an AK-47, but later admitted that the officer “disappeared” over time, like most of the prisoners.
Unfortunately it’s easy to explain discrepancies from both the witness and the defendant merely in terms of the 30 years that have gone by since these events occurred. It’s possible both men could be telling the truth to the best of their memories. Translation also proved to be an evident problem during the proceedings, which are carried out in a mix of Khmer, French, and English (with strong foreign accents). Many questions had to be repeated several times due to difficulty in translation, and at times brief responses had no correlation with the simple questions asked. The defense complained ardently about this.
The trials are not without controversy. Credible accusations of corruption within the court have jeopardized its financial backing from other countries. Only 5 officers of the Khmer Rouge have been permitted by the government to go to trial at this time. Many members of Cambodia's current government are former members of the Khmer Rouge themselves, and guilty of crimes that will never go to trial. Thousands of ex-Khmer Rouge cadres live freely among the population as well.
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