Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Khmer Rouge In The Dock

The trial of a former senior Khmer Rouge leader has finally begun in Cambodia, three decades after the murderous regime was overthrown. The man in the dock used to be known as Duch, and ran a prison in which more or less all the inmates ended up dead. In all, around two million people died during the Khmer Rouge's four years in power, mostly from a combination of starvation and overwork during the doomed attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

Five senior Khmer Rouge figures are still alive and now facing trial, and Duch is the first of these into court, largely because he has now admitted his crimes and asked for forgiveness. There are two reasons why the legal process has taken so long. The first is that Duch, along with many of the former regime leaders such as Pol Pot, was able to evade capture for the best part of twenty years, lying low in one of Cambodia's many remote areas. Since his arrest, arguments between modern Cambodian politicians, representatives of the victims, the UN and other interested parties over what the tribunal should look like have delayed this day still further.

That begs the question whether such trials wouldn't be better conducted by the International Criminal Court. After all, an institution which examines such cases regularly ought to be able to make sure justice is served a lot more quickly than the kind of ad-hoc tribunal that's been set up in Cambodia. But that misses the point slightly. The queues of ordinary Cambodians who waited to get in to witness today's proceedings is testament to their desire to see the people who brutalised them tried openly in their own country. It may take longer, but justice reached under a country's own laws and under procedures agreed there, is much more satisfying than the alternative of a hearing, hidden away in a distant land. In a place like Cambodia, openness, education, truth and reconciliation are just as important as justice.

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