PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Thirty years after the fall of Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” regime, 78-year-old Chum Manh will finally see his torturer stand trial.
Nearly every Cambodian family lost loved ones during the 1975-79 period of Khmer Rouge rule that claimed an estimated 1.7 million lives.
Despite committing genocide in one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, none of Pol Pot’s surviving henchmen ever faced justice. Until now.
The U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal opens its first trial on Tuesday when 66-year-old Duch, also known as Kaing Guek Eav, faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and homicide while he ran the S-21 torture center.
“I want to ask him why he killed his own people, and why did his men torture me?” Chum Manh told Reuters during a visit to the Phnom Penh high school that was turned into the notorious S-21 prison during Pol Pot’s regime.
Chum Manh was among only 14 survivors from the jail, where an estimated 16,000 prisoners were tortured before being clubbed to death in the Cheoung Ek “Killing Fields” outside the capital.
“What motivated them to commit such heinous crimes?” Chum Manh asked as he surveyed his old cell in the former prison. Now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the building is largely preserved as it was when the Khmer Rouge jailers were driven out in 1979.
When the black-clad Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the besieged city’s residents welcomed them with open arms, hoping it meant the end of Cambodia’s civil war, a tragic sideshow to the U.S. anti-communist war in neighboring Vietnam.
Little did they know, the real nightmare was about to begin.
Within hours of occupying the sleepy capital, nestled on the banks of the Mekong and dripping in French colonial grandeur, Pol Pot started ‘Year Zero’, one of the most violent social experiments in human history.
Towns and cities were emptied as the entire population was forced out into the fields. By some accounts, the population of Phnom Penh went from 2 million to 25,000 in just three days.
Money was banned and the central bank was blown up. Cars were piled up at Phnom Penh airport as a monument against modernity.
Then the killing started.
Those with glasses, those who spoke a foreign language, those with soft hands were all marked out as “educated” or “bourgeois” and thus deemed to be enemies of Pol Pot’s peasant revolution.
Chum Manh, then a car mechanic, was accused of being a spy for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
He was thrown into a tiny cell about the size of a single bed, shackled and tortured almost daily.
“They once whipped me 200 times with electric cable wires when they heard my chains move,” he said, his voice breaking as tears welled up in his eyes.
“They killed my wife and my son. They even killed children only a few months old,” Chum Manh said.
Nearly six years after Cambodia and the United Nations agreed to set up the joint tribunal, prosecutors say they are able to draw on plenty of documentary and photographic evidence and witness testimony in the Duch trial.
“It’s quite a clear picture of what happened at S-21,” said deputy co-prosecutor William Smith, adding that the burden of proof “is not difficult.”
Tuesday’s hearing is more a symbolic start to the trial, with procedural matters to be handled over two days before the actual legal arguments and witness testimonies begin in March.
Nevertheless, Smith said: “It’s a very important day for the courts. It’s the first time someone is being brought to account for the Khmer Rouge atrocities.”
Some have doubts that the other four senior Pol Pot cadres detained by the court will ever face trial.
They include “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, the right-hand man to Pol Pot who died in 1998, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, plus former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife.
Unlike Duch, who confessed to his crimes after becoming a born-again Christian, the others insist they did nothing wrong and it is unclear when their trials might begin.
Critics say the credibility of the tribunal is in question after a foreign co-prosecutor recommended six more suspects for investigation.
His Cambodian counterpart objected, appearing to echo the view of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, that the trials should be limited.
It’s been a long journey to get any trial at all. After a 10-year occupation by Vietnamese troops, Khmer Rouge allies helped form a government following U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993.
The new government at first put the onus on national reconciliation, but, prodded by some in the international community, officials came round to the view that national unity would not be achieved without bringing the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.
Despite efforts to broadcast the court proceedings and educate Cambodians about the tribunal, there are concerns that Cambodians don’t know enough about it.
A recent survey by the Human Rights Center of the University of California, Berkeley, found 85 percent of respondents “had little or no knowledge” of the tribunal.
“This court will not be a success, no matter how good the trials, if the people of Cambodia don’t know and understand what is going on,” said Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Youk Chhang, director of a U.S.-funded research center that has been archiving evidence from the “Killing Fields” since 1997, said the trial would help educate those Cambodians who were born after Pol Pot’s regime fell. That is about half of Cambodia’s 14 million population.
“It’s also a loud and clear message that when you commit a crime, even 30 years later, you can face justice,” he said.
Survivors hope the trials will finally bring closure to their grief and mark a new era of peace and justice for the strife-torn southeast Asian nation.
“My anger says execute Duch, but that is not acceptable to Buddha,” Chum Manh said, remembering the Buddhist belief to shun feelings of revenge.
He waits a few minutes and says: “We should be lenient if they tell us the truth about the regime.”
Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Megan Goldin