Kaing Guek Eav, known to many as Duch, was not exceptional for being knee-deep in the blood of Cambodia's victims. Most members of the Khmer Rouge were expert in taking lives rather than improving them. He is, rather, exceptional for being one of the most higher ranking officials of the Pol Pot regime to have been brought to trial in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
He is seen as a crucial figure behind the deaths of upwards of 16,000 at Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng torture centre, in itself heinous, yet relatively small compared to the 1.7 million who perished at the hands of the supreme architect of a Maoist dystopia, Pol Pot himself. While the trial is promoting the importance of Duch in the mosaic of torture and death he helped create, the experts are not entirely sure what status to accord him: 'ordinary' war criminal, or demonic torturer of exceptional depravity? Author Peter Maguire calls him 'meticulous, academic and very organised', a picture of studied banality.
Such analysis involves unnecessary hair splitting, ignoring the fact that one can be both an Eichmann-styled bureaucrat dedicated to the achievement of targets (the trains running on time to death camps); and a zealot keen to participate in the more gruesome details of that process. In Duch's case, the list of charges are long and varied: crimes against humanity, conventional war crimes, rape and acts of torture.
Four others will front before the tribunal in due course with Duch, all of them having denied the various charges of crimes against humanity levelled against them. Khieu Samphan, the former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea; foreign minister leng Sary with his wife leng Thirith, then minister of social affairs, and notable propagandist Nuon Chea. Some commentators, Maguire included, argue that Khieu remains the far more significant figure, having founded the ruling body of the Khmer Rouge, Angkar, in addition to fulfilling his presidential duties. As it so happens, Khieu has as his defender a seasoned specialist capable of ruffling the most solid cases of genocide and war crimes: Jacques Vergès, known for his defence of the 'Butcher of Lyon', Klause Barbie.
The trial proceedings are backed by the United Nations and have been plagued by consistent delays. It had been over a decade since the idea of a tribunal was even proposed, and it has remained a body racked by under funding, corruption and interferences by the Cambodian government. The Hun Sen administration has sought to control the scope of the proceedings, which is unsurprising given his Khmer Rouge past.
Judge Nil Nonn did not feel that the delays issuing from the initial hearing had prejudiced the fairness of the trial. 'The first hearing represents the realisation of significant efforts to establish a fair and independent tribunal to try those in leadership positions and those most responsible for violations of Cambodia and international law.'
Survivors of Duch's exploits were few, but some did muster the courage to bear witness to the proceedings. They were greeted by a rather a dull trawling through procedural issues. Some felt catharsis and sheer relief - others, such as Phok Khan, felt a welling up of grief and rage at the sight of a man who wielded the arbitrary powers of life and death.
But Duch, for all his brutalities, has also had an extensive stint in prison. A nine year period, which did not involve a formal trial, may be something that will count in his favour. Defence lawyer Francois Roux certainly hopes so, though it is unlikely that counsel will be able to exonerate Duch for the charges on the books. The trial will add much to the knowledge of a regime so cruel and yet ill-understood, making matters of academic speculation concrete for a still very wounded nation.
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