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Duch’s Case Could Hold Valuable Lessons

Cambodia’s laboring justice system may be able to learn from the recent trial of Kaing Kek Iev under the Khmer Rouge tribunal, an added benefit to the UN-backed court, experts say.

Kaing Kek Iev, the former Khmer Rouge prison chief better known as Duch, has undergone trial on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and murder. He is awaiting final statements from the Trial Chamber, following six months of questioning and witness testimony.

Cambodian media have faithfully covered the proceedings, and decisions from the three chambers of the court have been posted on the court’s Web site. All of that could have a positive effect on Cambodia’s regular courts, as well as helping the country overcome its collective trauma.

“This court has given equal rights to both victims and the accused to have Khmer and foreign lawyers, and they have been given enough time for questions and answers,” Kek Galabru, founder of the prominent rights group Lichado, told VOA Khmer recently. “I see that their procedure is up to international standards, and I hope that from today onward Cambodia’s courts can follow the examples set by the Khmer Rouge tribunal.”

Long Panhavuth, a tribunal monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said, “Duch’s trial will be a victory.”

The trial demonstrated a “criminal case procedure that does not exist in our national legal system, and it will be a success because many victims and people show much interest and follow it every day,” he said.

The tribunal is tasked with more than just trying former leaders of the regime.

“What we have done is not only seek justice, but national reconciliation,” said Neou Kassie, an outreach officer of the court’s Victims Unit. “Because we believe that there is reconciliation, no hatred, and no anger, we can make our country and our economy prosperous.”

Duch, who has been in detention for more than a decade, first in a military prison and then under the tribunal, faces atrocity crimes charges for his role as head of several Khmer Rouge prison facilities, including Tuol Sleng, where he is accused of overseeing the deaths of more than 12,000 people.

But while it may have had something to teach the courts, the trial was held under the shadow of lingering corruption allegations within the tribunal, engendering skepticism in some.

“I have seen that in the past few years since its inception, the court has been accused of corruption and other issues related to its transparency, and I wonder whether such a problem it is not a good example for our Cambodian court,” said Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-US professor who recently filed a victim complaint with the court.

“We didn’t learn much that we didn’t already know,” said Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia.”

Still, “people are beginning to talk and beginning to think about the Khmer Rouge era,” he said. “That’s a useful thing. But I think it is a difficult thing to predict what these trials can do. In the case of Duch, I think they took too long and spent far too much money on a very simple war-crime case.”