Editorial: The first Khmer Rouge leader to go on trial for genocide

Editorial: The first trial of a Khmer Rouge leader is about the only good thing to emerge from Cambodia

Justice has been a long time coming - more than 30 years in Kaing Guek Eav's case. The man accused of running the Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh, where 12,380 people died, took a polite bow yesterday at the opening of his trial for genocide. Comrade Duch, as he was known, is the first Khmer Rouge leader to take the stand before a UN-backed tribunal. A torturer turned born-again Christian, he is expected to apologise for atrocities he committed, but he will also argue that he acted under orders. Survivors will testify that he carried them out with gusto.

That, however, is about the only good thing to emerge from Cambodia. For three decades, efforts to call to account the surviving members of a regime which killed 1.7 million of their countrymen, have been sabotaged by the US, China and Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister respectively. Hun Sen started the ball rolling in 1997, by asking the then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan for an international tribunal. Within a year Hun Sen went into reverse, inviting Khmer Rouge officials to his home, where he toasted them with champagne and called for Cambodians to "bury the past".

For the last decade Hun Sen has assiduously undermined efforts to establish a credible tribunal and progress of the cases under investigation has been glacial. Duch confessed to his sins 10 years ago, but his trial is starting only now. The tribunal called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, have been extraordinary indeed. The Cambodian judges have been accused of taking kickbacks. The prosecutors are reluctant to investigate despite the wealth of evidence from survivors. Only five Khmer Rouge have been charged, and Hun Sen himself has said he wants the tribunal to stop there.

Why? The US initially blocked attempts to put the Khmer Rouge on trial, while its insurgents were trying to force the Vietnamese army out of Cambodia in the 1980s. Today the US no longer believes the tribunal is value for money, and indicated it wanted no more than a dozen prosecutions. China, the only country on the ground in Cambodia during the terror, still thinks it could be held liable, although there is no evidence Chinese officials participated in the slaughter. And Hun Seng, a former Khmer Rouge man himself, could be shielding senior members of his own administration. The current head of his parliament and party were both senior commanders in the east of the country where some of the worst atrocities took place.

Justice has been mired in a country where there has been no break with the past, unlike Rwanda, former Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone. It means that few of the perpetrators of one of the worst crimes of recent history may ever be called to account.


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