Cambodia is a countries located in Southeastern Asia. Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer regime in 1979, the first trial began in February against one of five former Khmer leaders who were prosecuted at the UN-backed Special Tribunal in Phnom Penh. The court was appointed to judge the highest ranking Khmer leaders who were still alive.
The trial of Kang Kek Ieu, better known by the name of Duch, began on February 17. Duch did not belong to the regime’s absolute top tier, but during its power in 1975-79 was head of the notorious prison Tuol Sleng S-21 where at least 14,000 interns were killed, almost all under torture. Only a handful of prisoners survived the death camp. Three of them were still alive at the time of Duch’s trial – two testified against him.
The 66-year-old Duch was prosecuted for crimes against humanity and serious violations of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Human Rights. He was the only one of the five defendants to plead guilty. Duch was arrested in 1999 and had then been saved. During the trial, he expressed deep regret over the actions he committed and was responsible for as a prison chief. He asked the victims’ relatives for forgiveness and said he tried to avoid being appointed as the head of Tuol Sleng S-21. He also said he feared for his family’s life if he refused to obey orders. However, Duch’s plea on the final day of the trial to be immediately released, however, cast doubt on his sincerity and plea for forgiveness.
The prosecutor pleaded for 45 years in prison for Duch. The verdict was expected to drop at the beginning of 2010. Duch’s testimony, along with around 45 testimonies, was believed to be valuable in the upcoming trials against the other defendants, all of whom denied the crime. The four were Nuon Chea, or “Brother number two”, who was the Red Khmer second highest leader after Pol Pot; Red Khmer Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, who was Minister of Social Affairs, and Khieu Samphan, Head of State during the Red Khmer regime. The trials against these four could not begin until 2010 at the earliest.
The Tribunal against the former leaders of the Red Khmer is a collaboration between the UN and Cambodia. It has suffered severe delays, partly because of differences of opinion between the Cambodian and the international representatives. About 1.7 million people are estimated to have died under the terror of the Khmer by executions, torture, starvation and disease. The Red Khmer was a Maoist guerrilla whose goal was to transform the country into a purely, utopian agricultural land by clearing out the middle class and urban population as well as political dissent – real or imagined.
When local elections were held around the country in May, the Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) government consolidated its great dominance in politics by winning by a wide margin. The same month, 82-year-old Nuon Chea’s application to be released from custody against the bail was rejected.
In June, Canadian lawyer Robert Petit resigned from the post of Supreme International Prosecutor at the Red Khmer Tribunal. Petit stated family reasons but he had long expressed criticism of the Cambodians’ way of handling the court proceedings. Among other things, Petit had wanted to prosecute more people in connection with the red Khmer settlement, but had been discouraged for political reasons; the people who were involved were now reported to be part of the political and business establishment around Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In September, a formal recommendation came to the Red Khmer Tribunal from Robert Petit’s replacement, William Smith of Australia, to initiate preliminary investigations against another five people suspected of crimes against humanity. Which of the five suspects was not announced by the court. Cambodian judge Chea Leang opposed the proposal, as did Prime Minister Hun Sen. The latter warned that such a preliminary investigation could lead to civil war.
In early November, the country’s already strained relations with Thailand deteriorated, as Hun Sen’s government offered Thai former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra both a sanctuary and work as an adviser to the Phnom Penh government. Thaksin was sentenced to prison for corruption in Thailand but was on the run. After the offer became known, both Thailand and Cambodia took home their ambassadors from their neighboring countries. Thaksin accepted the offer of Cambodia, but stayed only five days in the country.
A little later, a Thai air traffic controller in Phnom Penh was sentenced to seven years in prison for spying after he was accused of informing Thai diplomats about Thaksin’s flight schedule during the controversial visit. The convicted was later pardoned by Cambodia king Norodom Sihamoni.
In December, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea were also prosecuted for genocide against Cambodia’s Vietnamese and Muslim minorities – a symbolically very significant prosecution as they had previously had difficulties in classifying the charges as genocide.