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Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010


A conviction in Cambodia

It has been 31 years since the Khmer Rouge were forced from power in Cambodia. During their four-year reign of terror, as many as 2 million people, or nearly one-third of the population, were killed. For over three decades, there has been no reckoning for the perpetrators of these horrific deeds, no justice for the victims.

That changed last month when Kaing Guek Eav was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The verdict offered some closure to the survivors, but not much. Justice requires rationality, some sense of cause and effect: The Khmer Rouge crimes defy that.

Kaing Guek Eav was a math teacher when he joined the Khmer Rouge in 1967. He took up the nom de guerre "Comrade Duch," and ran prison facilities that the Khmer Rouge set up in territory they controlled. When the party took control of Cambodia in 1975, Duch became head of the Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh, known as S-21.

During the four years he ran the prison, he oversaw the deaths of as many as 16,000 people, including women and children. Only 14 prisoners are thought to have survived a stay at the hellhole, where torture was routine and mass murder the usual end. When the Khmer Rouge were forced from power, he fled to the provinces where he lived unmolested, although he periodically moved to avoid being identified.

Duch was eventually tracked down by journalists and he surrendered to authorities for trial in 1999. A United Nations-supervised tribunal began proceedings in February 2009; it concluded last month with a guilty verdict and a sentence of 35 years in prison. He will serve only 19 years because he spent 11 years in detention awaiting trial and the sentence was shaved another five years because he cooperated with the court.

Duch expressed remorse for his deeds. That may offer the families of the victims some solace. None of the other four Khmer Rouge leaders awaiting trial have conceded as much.

Nuon Chea, the regime's chief ideologue and known as "Brother No. 2," denies the charges and says he acted as a patriot. Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, denies responsibility for crimes committed when he was in power; he says he was just a figurehead. Ieng Sary was the Khmer Rouge former foreign minister; he, too, denies all guilt. Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary's wife and minister of social affairs, calls the charges leveled against her — crimes against humanity, genocide, homicide, torture and religious persecution — "100 percent false." Their trials are scheduled to begin next year and the outcomes are by no means certain.

The defendants are old and may not survive the rigors of detention and trial. Unlike the case of Duch, there is no voluminous trail of evidence against them, despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge, like most mass murderers in history, rigorously documented their atrocities in detail.

Just as worrisome is the prospect of political interference. The U.N. tribunal has been dogged by allegations of meddling. There is a wide range of countries and individuals that would prefer to see the crimes of the past stay buried. The United States and China, for example, would like to avoid scrutiny of their relationship with the Khmer Rouge. That regime may have been murderous, but both Beijing and Washington looked for Cambodian allies to fight the successor Phnom Penh government installed by Hanoi. Only the Khmer Rouge had the credibility to stand up to the government imposed by Vietnam, and in the zero-sum environment of the 1980s, that was enough for those two governments to overlook crimes the Khmer Rouge had committed.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is no more enthusiastic about the tribunal and its mandate. He was a former Khmer Rouge commander who grew disillusioned with his colleagues and was installed as leader of Cambodia by Vietnam when it invaded in 1979. He ensured that the tribunal's mandate extended only to the other Khmer Rouge leaders. His history gives him reason to insulate himself from it.

It is only the victims and their survivors who have a real interest in justice and a compelling explanation for what happened. The time that has passed since the atrocities occurred makes a reckoning almost impossible. How can there be "justice" for slaughter on such a scale? How can there be a rational explanation for the wanton and random acts of cruelty that typified the Khmer Rouge reign? These crimes were capricious; they were committed for no reason other than a need to keep killing. Indeed, the regime's murderous appetite eventually forced it to consume itself.

If the next round of trials occurs, all blame is likely to be put on Pol Pot, "Brother No. 1," who led the Khmer Rouge until he "resigned" in 1985. Pol Pot died in 1998, the night it was announced that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to hand him over to an international tribunal.

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