'Killing Fields' trial for S-21 chief Duch underway in Cambodia

Monday, March 30, 2009

17,000 people are thought to have died at S-21.
Image: Nefelimhg.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the chief of the Khmer Rouge's infamous S-21 prison, heard charges read against him by judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on Monday.

A former maths teacher, Duch, age 66, is one of five Khmer Rouge leaders still living who are expected to be charged for the war crimes of the 1975-1979 regime which may have been responsible for the deaths of two million people. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge uprising, died in 1998 which brought a formal surrender and end to the organization.

Arrested in 1999, Duch claims to be a born-again Christian and has admitted his personal responsibility for events at Tuol Sleng, though he denies personally torturing or executing prisoners. Prisoners at the camp were routinely tortured to admit they were CIA spies, or admit to other crimes, after which they were killed.

It is expected that Duch will participate in the trial, addressing charges that he oversaw the torture and execution of more than 15,000 individuals, both Cambodians and foreigners.

"A confession is a good thing for Duch to do. If Duch pleads guilty, I will be eased in my heart," said former Tuol Sleng prisoner Vann Nath. Nath was spared at the prison for his value as an artist. "We will get a kind of justice — not compensation — but justice that can heal our mind when the court convicts Duch and he receives the punishment."

Some victims wish for more, and more than just these five leaders. Rob Hamill of New Zealand, whose brother Kerry and friends John Dewhurst of the British Isles and Stuart Glass of Canada were arrested, detained, tortured, and killed after their sailboat passed into Cambodian waters, spoke of the pain and grief in his family with ThePress.co.nz. "I often think about how things could have been better. Not that things are terrible, but you know having Kerry in our lives would have [been better]."

The court does not have the ability to impose the death penalty, but it can impose a life sentence on Duch. The defense appears ready to ask for a reduced sentence in exchange for Duch's confession.