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Khmer Rouge Tribunal Finally Gets Under Way

  • Luke Hunt

The Khmer Rouge tribunal now under way, after more than 10 years of negotiations, is being seen as a significant step forward for Cambodians. However, the long and often-arduous process of winning international approval for the trial has also involved people from other walks of life.

Before the courts first is Kaing Guek Eav - more commonly known as "Duch" - who was in charge of the dreaded S21 detention center, where thousands of people were allegedly held and tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the capital, where they were killed.

A former mathematics teacher, Duch has indicated he will plead no contest to the charges and this could have serious ramifications for other surviving leaders - expected to be in front of the United Nations-sanctioned court, later this year, for the deaths of 1.7 million people, between 1975 and 1979.

American Michael Hayes is the founding publisher of The Phnom Penh Post and has followed the tribunal, step-by-step, for the past 10 years.

"This process and this trial, in particular - people have a higher level of interest because Duch basically has already admitted his involvement in the executions of 16,000 or more people at the center which he ran. So people are really looking forward to hear what he says. In fact that's why he's being tried first, because the thought is that he's the easiest guy to convict, there's so much evidence against him already," said Hayes.

Those expectations have been tempered by frustrating delays that Australian academic Helen Jarvis says can be traced back to the Cold War, when Cambodia found itself at the center of a global political conflict.

Jarvis has been closely aligned with the Cambodian government, since it began negotiations with the United Nations for its backing for an international tribunal.

"I think we have to count back to 1979 so we're really - we're 30 years since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime; 30 years, people have waited a long time," said Jarvis. "A number of people have died whether they were potential people to be in the dock or victims who were wanting to see justice but have died before that day and that's why we're mindful we really have to move as fast as we can."

The tribunal may have been a long time coming, but Jarvis is adamant that Cambodians want to see Pol Pot's lieutenants in the dock and the awareness level about what this means is reaching out across the country.

"Every survey that's been done shows 80 percent or more of people supporting the concept of this court and around 60 or 70 percent are aware of our work and that's very encouraging. We know that people have great expectations for us. As I said, they are frustrated and some of them are cynical but they all want this justice," said Jarvis.

Now, it appears those people will finally get their chance to gain a greater understanding of what happened here under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, who left this country completely devastated and a third of its population dead after just three years and eight months of rule.

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