The first trial of a senior Khmer Rouge cadre opened Tuesday, 30 years after the end of the brutal communist regime that took the lives of as much as one fourth of Cambodia’s population.
The first defendant is Kaing Guek Eav, 66, better known as Duch, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng prison and torture house, which sent at least 14,000 people to their deaths in a killing field.
The purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was to address procedural issues before court sessions begin next month.
Duch (pronounced DOIK) confessed to journalists before his arrest nine years ago that he had committed atrocities, but said he had been acting under orders and would himself have been killed if he had disobeyed. Known for his brutality, he is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, and with murder and torture in his prison, known as S-21.
Four senior Khmer Rouge officials who were in a position to give those orders are also in custody, but court officials say their trials may not start until next year.
They are Nuon Chea, 82, the movement’s chief ideologue; Khieu Samphan, 76, who was head of state; Ieng Sary, 82, the former foreign minister; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, 75, a fellow member of the Khmer Rouge Central Committee.
The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Many Cambodians say they fear that some of the defendants may also die before they are brought to trial, and the tribunal has been providing them the best medical care Cambodia has to offer.
The trials are being held by a hybrid tribunal supported by the United Nations that includes Cambodian and foreign judges and prosecutors in an awkward legal compromise that has drawn criticism from human rights advocates and legal scholars.
The chief concern is that the Cambodian members of the tribunal will not be independent of their government’s political agenda. Questions have already been raised about the Cambodian co-prosecutor’s reluctance to recommend further indictments.
Foreign and Cambodian analysts say the government, fearing that a widening circle of defendants could reach into its own ranks, wishes to limit the number of defendants, thereby harming the tribunal’s credibility.