PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Hiding his tears behind the leafy branch of a frangipani tree, Uk Sam Yul, 54, stood outside the Khmer Rouge tribunal Monday afternoon and said he finally feels happy.
In early 1976, the Khmer Rouge accused the villager of belonging to the CIA, imprisoning and torturing him. He remained in jail until the regime’s demise three years later.
“I hope the people of Cambodia will now release their anger,” he says. “Now I can.”
Uk Sam Yul joined more than 500 spectators in the Phnom Penh court to watch the start of the first trial in the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The crowd included sarong-wrapped old men and women, teams of Cambodian law students and pockets of foreigners. Dozens of reporters lined the entryway, cameras and booms in hand, waiting to question victims like Uk Sam Yul.
At 10:04 a.m., the crowd stood, seven judges entered, and the trial convened. The hybrid court is tasked with trying “senior leaders” and “those most responsible” for crimes committed in the late 1970s under the Khmer Rouge, beginning with the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch” (pronounced Doik).
The 66-year-old sat in front of the chamber, his slight frame poised, his expression concentrated. While in charge of the regime’s S-21 torture prison, Duch allegedly instructed teenage guards to torture and kill more than 12,000 accused traitors. Though a different prison detained Uk Sam Yul, he says he identifies with those taken to S-21 and hopes Duch will be fairly punished.
Once Duch’s trial ends, the court will focus on jointly prosecuting four former members of the regime’s Central Committee, including head of state Khieu Samphan, “brother number two” Nuon Chea, foreign minister Ieng Sary, and minister of social affairs Ieng Thierith.
“The ECCC is the last step in a long path to reconciliation,” says Khmer Rouge scholar and documentarian Youk Chhang, who formally requested today be declared a public holiday in Cambodia.
Forty years ago, U.S. bombing aimed at destroying Viet Cong camps on Cambodia’s eastern border killed up to 300,000 Cambodian civilians. The bombings so enraged the population that it moved to support the Khmer Rouge rebels, led by Pol Pot, who had previously not enjoyed much support. Pol Pot seized control of the country in April 1975 and set out to create an agrarian utopia, emptying cities and forcing citizens to labor in rice fields. During Khmer Rouge's three-and-a-half year rule, up to 2 million Cambodians died.
In 1979, a Vietnam-backed army of former Khmer Rouge cadres, including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, forced the regime from power. Pol Pot escaped to the western jungles where he waged a 20-year insurgency until his death in 1998.
Negotiations for an international tribunal began that year. It took a decade for the U.N. and the Hun Sen government to agree to terms for a joint court and the ECCC began operating in mid-2006. Almost immediately, Cambodian staffers reported being forced to pay kickbacks to secure their jobs, but the Cambodian government has so far refused to investigate and the U.N. lacks the authority to do so.
A dispute between the co-prosecutors in December, with the Cambodian lawyer opposing additional prosecutions, prompted criticisms that her motives are political. Unless these allegations are resolved, Duch’s trial and the court as a whole will be deemed illegitimate, argues defense coordinator Richard Rogers. “The U.N. doesn’t want to find itself, five years down the line, having supported a court that is seen as a failure,” he says.
Duch’s lawyer, Francois Roux, says that regardless of the controversies, his client wants his trial to proceed and has cooperated with co-investigating judges since he was transferred to the court in 2007. Duch was arrested a decade ago, after British photojournalist Nic Dunlop discovered him living as a teacher in Battambang province.
“It’s God’s will that you are here,” Duch, now a born-again Christian, told Dunlop. “I feel very sorry about the killings and the past.” Duch maintains his contrition to this day, his lawyer Roux says, adding, “He is really eager to talk to the victims and beg them pardon.”
At the start of the trial today, Duch placed his palms to his forehead and bowed to the judges before he responded to questions about his aliases and family history. A court clerk then read aloud the charges against him and Duch dutifully read along, his expression unchanged when she listed some of the most inhumane acts allegedly committed at the prison with his approval — medical experimentation, the force-feeding of feces and the rape of a female prisoner with a stick.
Reading the indictment took all day and opening statements were postponed until tomorrow. At the end of the hearing, Duch stood, his dress pants hiked high on his waist to reveal bright white socks, and bowed again to the judges.
“Little by little, Duch rediscovers his humanity,” his lawyer says.
The defense’s portrayal of Duch as a contrite old man is a ploy to elicit a lenient sentence, argues Robert Petit, chief international prosecutor. “[Duch] may have admitted that at S-21, crimes were committed,” Petit explains. “That doesn’t mean he’s admitted what his responsibility looks like.” During the course of the estimated four-month trial, Petit says he plans to make Duch’s responsibility clear.
Because the court primarily follows Cambodian law, which is grounded in the French civil law system, Duch cannot plead guilty anyway. A confession from Duch is considered one of many statements. Besides, says Petit, who knows what motivates Duch to apologize.
He points out: “You don’t take a mass murderer’s word on its face.”
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