News / Asia

Cambodian Anxiety Peaks Ahead of Khmer Rouge Verdict

In Cambodia, the trial of a leading Khmer Rouge figure, blamed for the deaths of about 16,000 people, is heading for a conclusion.  

The trial of Kang Guek Eav, also known as Duch, has gripped this nation for almost a year and a half.  Millions of people are expected to watch on television as the verdict is announced, Monday, by a United Nations-backed court.

Duch ran the S21 torture and extermination center, where thousands of men, women and children were processed before being sent to dig their own graves in the killing fields on the outskirts of the capital.

Initially, Duch pleaded no contest.  Throughout the tribunal he has provided an abundance of chilling evidence into the inner workings of Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoists.

They ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and are being held responsible for the deaths of perhaps two million people, who died of murder, starvation and illness.

But, in a final legal twist, Duch changed his plea to not guilty and asked the judges to release him.  He has sacked the head of his international defense team, French Lawyer Francois Roux, and asked for a Chinese lawyer to replace him.

Theary Seng survived the killing fields as a child.  She was rescued from the refugee camps and raised in the United States, where she became an author and lawyer. She is the founder of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation.

"There's a lot of confusion at the moment because recently we were told Duch fired his U.N. lawyer at the 11th hour, on the advent of the verdict, which is very perplexing," Seng says.  "And, it has raised suspicions again of political interference.  It has raised cynicism.  It has confirmed the fears of many Cambodians in thinking that Duch is not believable, in the first place - that his confession, his asking for forgiveness - aren't genuine and hopeful the fears won't turn into paranoia."

The Cambodian government has directed all domestic television networks to broadcast the verdict.

At the court, about 300 journalists and hundreds more officials, diplomats, legal observers and Khmer Rouge victims have overwhelmed authorities in seeking seats for the announcement.

Regardless of Duch's last-minute legal maneuvers, Theary Seng, along with many others, believe his admissions to overseeing crimes of torture that included water boarding and medical operations on patients without an anesthetic and the eventual murders of thousands of people will lead to a conviction and life in prison.

His evidence would also prove compelling in cases to follow. Another four surviving Khmer Rouge leaders - Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith - are to on trial next year.

"It's a catalyst that has broken the silence of the last 30 years of this regime, which has truly taken the lives of one-fourth to one-third of the Cambodian population.  Every Cambodian alive right now is directly affected by the crimes of the past," Seng said.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted by invading Vietnamese troops in early 1979, civil war continued for another two decades. Only then was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a position to ask the United Nations to help broker an international tribunal to focus on the atrocities allegedly carried out by Pol Pot and his henchmen.

Further delays followed, amid bickering with the United Nations about the final make-up of the tribunal and funding issues.  However, the long awaited trial eventually got underway and is expected to remain a fixture on this country's legal and political landscape for a few years to come.

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