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Khmer Rouge Verdict Hailed as a “First Step”

Hannah Rubenstein

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 26 2010 (IPS) - Lauding the conviction of a Khmer Rouge leader Monday as a historic moment in the history of Cambodia, some international human rights groups also expressed disappointment with what they view as a lenient sentence, and urged an end to what they described as “political interference” in the judicial process.

Thirty years after genocide claimed the lives of more than two million people under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge rule, a United Nations-backed tribunal issued its first verdict in response to the atrocity: a conviction and 35-year jail sentence for the prison chief of the S-21 Security Office called Tuol Sleng, who oversaw the detention and torture of 14,000 prisoners from 1975 to 1979.

The conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, comes after an eight-month trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a tribunal established in 2003 to prosecute cases of senior officials and others who violated human rights laws during Khmer Rouge leadership. The tribunal is comprised of members from both Cambodia and the international community.

The ECCC found Duch guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and assigned the former official a jail sentence of 35 years. The court deducted five years from the sentence due to illegal detention by the Cambodian Military Court between 1999 and 2007, and counted 11 years as time already served. Duch will be imprisoned until 2029, at which time he will be 86 years old.

Following the hour-long verdict, ECCC co-prosecutor Chea Leang told reporters, “This court has tried and punished a perpetrator of Democratic Kampuchea, one of the most macabre regimes of the modern era.” The Democratic Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge, rule is responsible for the massacre of a quarter of Cambodia’s population from 1975 to 1979, as a result of forced labour and starvation.

A court spokesman, Lars Olsen, said that the tribunal’s decision not to assign a life sentence—the harshest conviction possible, as Cambodia does not recognise the death sentence—took into consideration Duch’s cooperation, his admission of responsibility and limited expressions of remorse, the coercive environment of the Khmer Rouge period, and the possibility of rehabilitation.


One survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison who testified in the trial, 79-year-old Chum Mey, told the New York Times that he was “unsatisfied” with the outcome. “We are victims two times,” he said, “once in the Khmer Rouge time and now once again.”

“His prison is comfortable with air conditioning, food three times a day, fans and everything,” he said outside the courtroom. “I sat on the floor with filth and excrement all around.”

Sara Colm, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who is based in Cambodia, released a statement praising the tribunal for holding Duch accountable for the crimes he committed. “But,” she said, “It will take much more than today’s verdict to achieve real justice for the Cambodian people who suffered under Khmer Rouge rule.”

One major point of contention against the proceedings from human rights groups is the ECCC’s decision to prosecute only a few individuals in connection with the Khmer Rouge genocide. Later this year, the court will decide whether to indict five senior members of the regime on war crimes: head of state Khieu Samphan; Foreign Minister Ieng Sary; Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, and Nuon Chea, a senior Communist Party of Kampuchea officer known as “Brother No 2.”

Donna Guest, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Asia-Pacific programme, released a statement asserting that this approach “falls short of fulfilling the Extraordinary Chambers’ mandate to prosecute those most responsible for grave crimes committed under Khmer Rouge rule.”

“Identifying only five or 10 people as allegedly responsible for the massive atrocities does not do enough to satisfy the justice that Cambodians deserve and are entitled to under international law,” she said.

Two more cases, filed by Office of the Co-Prosecutors in September 2009, charge the suspects with 40 incidents of murder, torture, unlawful detention, forced labour, and persecution. Following these charges, Leang stated that no more cases would be pursued by the Office due to political – not legal – considerations, such as “past instability” and a “need for national reconciliation”.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are urging both the Cambodian government and the United Nations to uphold a standard of justice over political concerns.

“Progress could be undermined by political interference from Cambodian officials who openly oppose more prosecutions, and by disagreements between the Cambodian and International Co- Investigating Judges,” said Guest.

“Up to two million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge’s horrific rule, yet the government is refusing to hold more than five people to account,” added Colm. “The U.N. and the tribunal’s international donors should not allow political interference with the court to undermine its credibility.”

In a press release, the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, said, “I support the ECCC as it moves forward with its investigations and urge all involved to ensure the process lives up to and reflects the imperatives of justice, transparency, and reconciliation for the Cambodian people.”

He added, “I look to this process not only to provide justice, but to allow some closure for the families of the victims… These proceedings have touched an entire generation of Cambodians.”

 
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