The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Justice Being Done- the Duch Trial

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on September 9, 2010

After waiting for more 30 years, survivors of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime are finally get what they deserve—justice. The first trial against the atrocious crimes committed during the Pol Pot era ended with a sentence of 30-year imprisonment for Kang Kek Iew, better known as Comrade Duch. This trial has significant implications for both Cambodia as well as the region. Domestically, it demonstrates the state’s efforts in fulfilling its responsibility to protect its citizens against atrocities by persecuting those responsible for the crimes. Regionally,  it sets an example for other countries with similar cases, such as Bangladesh.

Up to two million Cambodians were executed or died as a result of starvation or  being overworked under the Khmer Rouge regime. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the atrocities were exposed to the world. However, the proceedings against these crimes have been rather slow due to complex domestic reasons and disagreement between the Cambodian government and the United Nations. Duch, who was the head of Tuol Sleng prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and executed, was formally charged in 2007. He is the first of five former Khmer Rouge leaders who has been tried by the UN-backed tribunal.

Despite the delay, the trial shows that the state is committed to preventing genocide from recurring in Cambodia. It brings an end to impunity which undermines the role of domestic and international laws in deterring crimes such as genocide. Ending impunity constitutes an essential aspect of genocide prevention. In his message on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan incorporated “ending impunity through judicial action in national and international courts” into his five-point plan for preventing genocide. Sending the former Khmer Rouge figure into jail symbolizes a big step forward in this respect.

The Duch trial serves as an encouragement for the legal process against crimes of mass atrocity in the region. Just a few days after the sentence against Duch was announced, leaders of Jammat-e-Islami, a major Islamist party of Bangladesh, were put under arrest and would be tried for several charges including genocide. This organization is suspected to be involved in the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities. Altogether, these developments all contribute to the efforts to prevent the recurrence of genocide in this region and the world at large.

However, there are also worries and concerns. Many people were angered by the fact that the 30-year imprisonment was reduced to 19 years on the basis that he had been already detained for 11 years prior to the trial. The incoming trial for the other four higher-ranking leaders is a bigger challenge. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that war might be ignited if more suspects were tried, and would not allow anyone to destroy the peace. Such a warning thus suggests that the government’s endorsement for the trials is conditional rather than full.

All in all, despite the anger, disappointment, and worries, it is undeniable that we embarking on returning justice to the victims and their families.


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