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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 15:35 GMT
Khmer Rouge trial raises hope of justice
By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Duch in court on 20 November 2007
Duch ran the Tuol Sleng jail, known as a 'killing machine'
It was a bland setting for such a significant moment.

The small, pre-trial chamber of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is painted an inoffensive magnolia, and has all the gravitas of a hotel conference room.

When the first defendant at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal made his entrance, however, everything changed.

Although nobody spoke, the atmosphere suddenly became charged as a guard led the man known as Comrade Duch by the arm to the dock.

He did not look like someone charged with crimes against humanity.

Duch wore a white, short-sleeved shirt and his feet were shod in brown, leather sandals.

At 66, he seemed fit and wiry, but walked with a slight stoop. He looked every inch the retired teacher he once claimed to be.

Impassive demeanour

Duch is facing grim accusations. He was in charge of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison when the Khmer Rouge held power.

A boy sits in front of skulls at a shrine to those killed during Khmer Rouge rule, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
More than a million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule
About 14,000 people were held there. Only a handful survived.

The rest were tortured into confessing to crimes against the revolution. Those who survived that process were executed.

One of the five, red-robed judges read the details of the charges against Duch.

He described the techniques used at Tuol Sleng - forcing prisoners to stand in pits which would slowly fill up with rainwater until they drowned; the pulling of finger and toe nails; bleeding to death.

The man in the dock sat impassively through it all. The only time he seemed nervous was when the judges called on him to confirm details of his identity and legal representation.

Then he stood up, bent the microphone towards him, bowed his head and pressed his hands together in a gesture of respect. He smiled awkwardly and, like a keen student, seemed eager to give the right answers.

Symbolic value

Duch's appearance is not of great legal significance. He is appealing to be released on bail after spending eight years in jail without trial, but most observers doubt he will be successful.

International co-prosecutor Robert Petit
This will be a first full-blown hearing for the people to be able to see that justice is being done
International co-prosecutor,
Robert Petit

The real importance comes in the symbolic value of a notorious figure appearing in open court for the first time.

It is a signal that after all the years of delays and legal and political wrangling, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is finally up and running in earnest.

The international co-prosecutor, Robert Petit, is convinced the hearing will have an impact on the people who survived Pol Pot's murderous regime.

"This will be a first full-blown hearing for the people to be able to see that justice is being done," he told the BBC.

"I hope that it will provide Cambodians with a certain sense of relief that the process is ongoing and is transparent, and that hopefully the way it goes provides them with some satisfaction."

Frustration to come?

Recent weeks have seen the arrest of other, more senior, Khmer Rouge leaders.

The former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, and one-time head of state Khieu Samphan, are both charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There will undoubtedly be many more delays as those questions of law, administration and practical matters are all sorted out
Rupert Skilbeck
Principal defender

Youk Chhang has spent more than a decade gathering evidence about the Khmer Rouge at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

Much of what he has discovered is now being used by the prosecutors and investigating judges at the tribunal.

Like others doing similar work he is anxious to see the process move more quickly now there are five suspects in custody.

"Why do there have to be so many delays? Why does it have to take such a long period of time and take so much money, otherwise you cannot call it 'international standard'?" he asked.

Despite the excitement of seeing a defendant in the dock for the first time, there will probably be more frustration to come.

Officials at the tribunal have already indicated that they are running over budget and are short on time.

An appeal will have to be made to international donors to provide the funds to keep the process running, and the original plan to wrap up the tribunal in 2009 now looks highly optimistic.

Prosecutors say they will need at least one more year. Other sources at the courts suggest it could over-run by three years.

Time is crucial

The principal defender, Rupert Skilbeck, believes that a structure which places the tribunal in the courts of Cambodia but with international officials and assistance has caused organisational difficulties.

Cambodians line up to enter the hearing at the genocide tribunal
Hundreds of people queued to attend the first tribunal session
"There will undoubtedly be many more delays as those questions of law, administration and practical matters are all sorted out," he said.

Time is crucial because of the age of the five defendants currently being held.

Some are in their 80s; most have suffered ill health. The legal officials are acutely aware that they must do all they can to make sure that justice is not thwarted by old age.

Nonetheless, Duch's court appearance and the recent round of arrests have given rise to fresh optimism.

Cambodian newspapers have been making the tribunal front page news, praising the charging of the former Khmer Rouge leaders.

Hundreds of people queued in the baking sun for a chance to witness the first open session of the tribunal.

That demonstrates a real desire among many Cambodians to see justice done - and an increasing hope that the tribunal will provide it.

Top Khmer Rouge leader charged
19 Nov 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Key figures in the Khmer Rouge
31 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime
19 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Rocky road to Khmer Rouge trial
26 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Surviving the Khmer Rouge
24 Jan 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Cambodia
19 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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