Khmer Rouge Torturer Goes On Trial
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Three decades ago, as many as two million people were killed or died of starvation at the hands of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. Today, the first major figure in that bloody period went on trial for crimes against humanity. His name is Kaing Guek Eav. In the 1970s, he ran an infamous prison where thousands died. He was known there as Comrade Duch. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Phnom Penh.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: The skies above the capital were dark and angry this morning and tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath thinks he knows why.
Mr. REACH SAMBATH (Tribunal spokesman): Today, when I drove from home, you know, I saw the cloud get black. It could be normal weather, but for me I think several thousand victims come to the court to watch the proceedings of the trial, and especially those who died with starvation and also died by the massacre of killing under the Khmer regime. So this is my belief, you know.
SULLIVAN: Justice is more than 30 years late for the victims and the survivors. But this morning's trial began on schedule, promptly at nine.
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Unidentified Man: Everybody be seated, please.
SULLIVAN: Today's session was mostly procedural, no testimony or witnesses are expected to be called until next month. But that didn't stop several hundred people from crowding into the court room to see Duch in the dock, the former Tuol Sleng torturer sitting impassively in a light blue button-down shirt. He and the officers of the court separated from the public by a thick sheet of glass.
Many in the packed court room were ordinary Cambodians. There were also a few survivors from Tuol Sleng prison, like artist Vann Nath, who spoke to reporters outside.
Mr. VANN NATH (Artist, Cambodia): (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: Thirty years ago, Vann Nath says, he remembers his tormenter Duch as a young man, as a strong man. But the man on the other side of the glass, Vann Nath says, is an old man. It's a strange feeling, he says, to finally be here to see the man who did this to me, to us, on trial. I used to hope this day would come, he says, but for a long time nothing happened, nothing until this morning.
Ms. SARA COLM (Human Rights Watch): For many years I never thought I would see this day.
SULLIVAN: That's Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch. She's been following Cambodia pretty much since the Khmer Rouge were forced out by the Vietnamese.
Ms. COLM: It's good to see Duch finally brought to trial. He in many ways is the face of the atrocities. I mean, he is the one that many people know, there's so much documentation about his case. Plus, he's not denying it. So I think this is a good case to start with.
SULLIVAN: Colm says Human Rights Watch remains concerned about whether the joint U.N.-Cambodian tribunal can be truly independent amid allegations of corruption and interference on the Cambodian side.
Ms. COLM: We can't be trying people on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity if there's any suggestion that judges and other staff are under political pressure or pressure to kickback portions of their salaries. So for those reasons, yes, it's a very important day, historic day, day that many of us have looked forward to, but there remain serious questions.
SULLIVAN: International observers are also worried about the tribunal's mandate. The Canadian co-prosecutor recently tried to add six more names to the list of suspects. But his Cambodian counterpart rejected that idea, saying it would do nothing to promote national reconciliation. Some observers believe more suspects and more trials might embarrass a government that includes several former Khmer Rouge, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Duch's trial is expected to be concluded by the end of the year. The trials of the four others in custody aren't expected to begin until 2010.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Phnom Penh.
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