Belated justice for a torturer of exceptional cruelty, or simply the trial of an “ordinary war criminal”? Opinions diverge concerning the importance of Kaing Guek Eav - best known by his revolutionary name "Comrade Duch" - within the Khmer Rouge machine.
Duch today began facing the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a court established in Phnom Penh under the auspices of the United Nations. Duch did not address the court, but sat calmly as his lawyers bargained with prosecutors over last-minute procedural issues relating to the fledgling tribunal.
Thirty years after the fall of the murderous regime of Pol Pot (1975-1979), the trial of the man who directed the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre, known as S-21, is the first in a series of international lawsuits that aim to be the heirs to Nuremberg, as well as to the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Duch is the first high-ranking Khmer Rouge official to be called to answer for his acts before an international court, charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, rape and acts of torture. Close to 16,000 people were interned at the detention centre that Duch oversaw, and only between 10 and 14 prisoners survived.
“His testimony is essential to corroborating our knowledge, which is still very academic,” says Beth Van Schaack, associate professor of law at the University of Santa Clara and author of “Bringing the Khmer Rouge to Justice.”
‘An ordinary war criminal’
Duch, now 66, spent years under an assumed identity, working as a schoolteacher and becoming a Christian lay minister. He was unmasked by a journalist in 1999 and surrendered to the Cambodian authorities. Of the five Khmer Rouge leaders being brought before the ECCC, he is the only one to have acknowledged his crimes.
“He will plead guilty and the evidence is overpowering; he should be sentenced to life in prison,” Van Schaack says. “His character is intriguing. This spiritual rebirth and this remorse are unheard of.”
But others play down the importance of Duch’s trial. “There won’t be any great surprises. He has acknowledged [his crimes], and the matter should be settled within a few days,” says Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia” and one of the first foreigners to have visited S-21. For him, Duch is merely “meticulous, academic and very organised; an ordinary war criminal.”
Maguire says Duch’s role was nothing in comparison to that of Khieu Samphan, former president of the state presidium of Democratic Kampuchea
The Duch trial will do much, however, to aid prosecutors prove the crimes of later defendants. “One can hope that it will be a promising start,” Maguire says.
While international observers say the tribunal is an important part of Cambodia's peaceful transition to democracy, many Cambodians remain unaware of the upcoming trials.
“Education levels are not very high and, for the majority, just managing to have two meals a day is more important,” Maguire says.
So while the international community is delighted to have finally succeeded in setting up this war crimes court, Cambodians themselves have more urgent matters to attend to.