Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Khmer Rouge trial: A man in the monster

Khmer Rouge trial: A man in the monster
By Putsata Reang
Dec 12 2007

PHNOM PENH - THE appearance of the first former Khmer Rouge leader in a special hybrid court established in Cambodia to bring that movement's surviving leaders to justice provoked a question on which the tribunal's integrity will depend: Should an accused mass murderer be released from prison pending his trial?
Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as 'Duch', presided over the deaths of more than 14,000 people at S-21, a former Phnom Penh high school turned into a torture centre. He is one of five former senior Khmer Rouge leaders who will be made to answer for their roles during Pol Pot's genocide, in which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died. Until recently, Duch was the only one imprisoned, after being exposed in 1999.

The court - with its improbable blend of Cambodian and foreign judges and attorneys as well as laws - is meant to be a model for judicial reform and independent justice in a country where impunity has long been the rule.

The five red-robed judges who preside over the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the tribunal's official name) are the final arbiters of Duch's detention, but the question they are now considering belongs as much to the people of Cambodia as it does to the court. Should accused mass murderers be afforded the same rights as everyone else?

One of my aunts has a strong opinion on the matter. Khmer Rouge soldiers beat her father to death, and she remembers being shot at for sport by communist cadres as she and dozens of other peasants scuttled up a mountainside. She now lives one block from the former S-21. 'Human rights are for humans,' she said emphatically when I asked her about Duch's case. 'He is a monster.'

I once believed that too. When I first visited Duch's house of horrors in 1990, I was 15 and full of wonder about the country where I was born but had never lived. My family escaped the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, the day they claimed victory. When my mother and I journeyed home to reunite with relatives who had survived the genocide, S-21 (also known as Tuol Sleng) was among our first stops.

By then, the torture facility had been turned into a museum. I remember feeling claustrophobic as I walked down its narrow halls and into classrooms turned into crude cellblocks. The air was stale but heavy with the stench of death in interrogation chambers, barren save for a single bed frame, shackles and a chair. Flecks of dried blood peeled up from the floor.

This was a place where fingernails of countless victims were ripped out, where others were strung upside down and dunked in barrels of water, where many were brutalised with metal prongs and batons. This was a place of utter brokenness. This was Duch's place.

Mostly, I remember the hundreds of black-and-white mug shots of prisoners and victims that covered every inch of the walls - a ghastly montage of human suffering that haunts me to this day. I couldn't help but think: This was somebody's daughter, somebody's son. This was somebody's mother or sister or brother.

Back then, I thought: What monster could do such things?

Now, that monster was sitting in a courtroom, looking scared and meek as prosecutors catalogued his alleged war crimes. Sitting in the packed auditorium where snatches of Duch's face flash by on a movie screen, I'm struck by what I see: a face that belongs to someone. This alleged perpetrator of unspeakable misdeeds is, like his victims, someone's son, someone's brother, someone's father.

This might have been only a fleeting thought had I not seen Duch's family members, who attended the hearings. Hang Seav Heang, 28, described the defendant as a gentle man, a good father. One of his sisters said he was a caring, protective brother, and that she would always love him.

Outside the courtroom and in the community, most of the Khmers I talked to were, like my aunt, quick to categorise Duch as something other than human. Duch must have thought much the same thing about his victims when he ordered them to their deaths. When we start to see each other as less than human, we respond with inhuman acts.

It is this narrow, black-and-white view of humanity that has perpetuated a cycle of violence in Cambodia, where raging mobs beat to death robbery suspects and young mistresses suffer acid attacks by jealous wives. To say that Duch is a monster who does not deserve rights ignores the grey area between good and evil, between man and monster, where anything is possible.

This trial is about that grey area, about that place in us all where morality decays and evil takes root and grows, the way mould prevails, given the right conditions. Each of us carries this potential for rot.

There is no dispute that Duch violated the rights of thousands of Khmers. But if the basic premise of these trials is to uphold human rights, then we are obliged to extend that same principle to Duch. What does it say to the country and the world if a court convened to mete out justice flouts the law? Isn't lawlessness the plague we are finally trying to eradicate in Cambodia?

The judges have offered no indication of when they will make a decision. And no one would blame them for taking their time to consider their options. This is, after all, the court's first test of fairness before the trials of Duch and four of Pol Pot's other henchmen begin next year.

We all want justice, but that justice should not come at the cost of our humanity.

The writer is a fellow of The Asia Society.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/The Asia Society

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