The Khmer Rouge Trial: More Important than Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Correction: I was mistaken, Seth Mydans at the New York Times has been reporting on this. I didn’t notice it. I apologize.


As grotesquely fascinating as the DSK story is–and yes, that is an important story, and yes, journalists are right to cover it–it is utterly bizarre that you can read major American newspaper after major American newspaper this week and come away without a hint that this is happening: 

Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal today handed down its first guilty verdict against a senior Khmer Rouge figure, Tuol Sleng prison director Duch, for crimes committed under the regime more than 30 years ago. …

Only 14 people are known to have survived Tuol Sleng, which under Duch’s meticulous and rigid hand evolved into an efficient killing machine that came to symbolise the worst excesses of increasingly paranoid Khmer Rouge leaders. 

Entire families were imprisoned for the alleged crimes of a single member, and on a single day in 1977 alone, Duch ordered the executions of 160 children. 

The verdict marks the first time that a Khmer Rouge official has been convicted by an internationally recognised court for crimes committed during the 1975-79 communist regime, which dismantled modern Cambodian society as it sought to build a classless agrarian utopia. Education, religion and currency were abolished, and the country’s entire population was put to work in vast collective farms. 

This radical social-engineering experiment, however, quickly became one of the 20th century’s worst tragedies, with an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dying of disease, exhaustion from overwork, torture or execution. 

During a six-month trial last year–the tribunal’s first–prosecutors painted Duch, a 67 year-old former math teacher, as a driving force behind the regime’s execution campaign, and argued that he guided crimes committed at Tuol Sleng.

Two points about this: First, the UN seems to have done a good job with the first trial. Justice has been far too slow, but if you look through the legal documents, you do see a serious attempt to return legally sound verdicts that will be accepted as legitimate.

However, the so-callled third and most important case appears to be in disarray:

“There are only two possible answers for all the chaos and shenanigans. Either the co-investigating judges are not professionally able, or they’re under political pressure. Either way we need a proper investigation,” said Ou Virak, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

The head of a victims’ association, Theary Seng, called on Mr Blunk to resign, along with the UN-appointed administrator of the tribunal.

“We had expected and trusted the UN personnel in the court to raise the quality of justice to international standards. But what’s happening is deceit–it’s deceit with UN complicity, with UN insignia on it,” she told the BBC.

I can’t evaluate these claims properly from Istanbul, but I think it’s fair to say that bringing the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice is massively important, no? And that the trial must not be allowed to degenerate into a political joke?