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In Final Duch Hearings, Questions of Justice

With the trial of former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Kek Iev drawing to a close this week, former prisoners, relatives of the dead and others have begun to contemplate the meaning of justice that has eluded them for three decades.

Kaing Kek Iev, or Duch, is charged with atrocity crimes resulting from the death and torture of thousands of Cambodians at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison he administered under the regime.

Testimony has come from survivors of the prison, known to the Khmer Rouge as S-21, former staff, historians and others, while civil parties, prosecutors and Duch himself will give final statements this week.

“This is a crucial week for Duch’s trial, and for the Cambodian people whose relatives were tortured and murdered at S-21 and the Choeung Ek killing fields,” tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said.

“Another crucial point is that the justice that the Cambodian people and survivors have been waiting for is coming closer,” he said. “This is justice that many people find hard to believe, but it is approaching.”

A verdict from the Trial Chamber of the UN-backed court is not expected until early 2010, and Duch faces up to life imprisonment if found guilty of the charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder and torture.

When the final stage began earlier this week, Van Nath, one of only seven survivors of a prison that killed at least 12,000 people, chose to travel to Battambang province, where Duch was first apprehended.

“Deep down, I anticipate something will come out of this tribunal,” Van Nath said when reached by phone. “I expect that justice will be served and that I can find peace in my mind.”

Civil parties to the trial have demanded heavy punishment, as well as reparation in the form of a preserved Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, along with a Buddhist shrine carrying the names of the dead and free treatment of people diagnosed with trauma as a result of the regime.

“These demands are for the memory [of the Khmer Rouge], which will last long into the distant future, so that a younger generation or future leaders will not dare abuse their power,” said Hong Kimsuon, a lawyer for one civil party.

Chum Mey, a second survivor of Tuol Sleng, said he wants monetary compensation for all civil parties who entered the trial process, “so that they will have some money to organize a religious ceremony.”

During the trial, Duch acknowledged his role as head of the prison and the execution site, and he apologized to the families of his victims.

His defense team has focused on his role as a subordinate to the revolution, claiming he would have been killed had he not followed orders from senior-most members of the Khmer Rouge.

Four of those, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, are now awaiting their own day in court, as investigators consider jointly trying them for atrocity crimes committed in the three years and eight months the regime was in power.