Cambodia still reeling from Khmer Rouge

19:37, Feb 05 2012
Former Khmer Rouge S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.
LIFE SENTENCE: Former Khmer Rouge S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, attends his appeal hearing at the Court Room of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Their photos line the walls of the genocide museum, once a notorious prison where Cambodians were tortured and killed by the brutal Khmer Rouge.

They give a face to victims of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s, but their pictures were taken for a different reason.

The images of the soon-to-be dead were taken so that their families could be identified and also put to death. It was a Khmer Rouge mantra - that to dig up the grass, one must also dig up the roots.

Just over three decades have passed since a quarter of Cambodia's population was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. Grandparents, adults and children were tortured, starved, or worked so hard, with such little food, that they dropped dead. Even babies were held by their legs, bashed against trees and flung into a mass grave.

Among the dead were several foreigners, one of them New Zealander Kerry Hamill, who is believed to have been captured when his yacht entered Cambodia waters in 1978.

He was taken prisoner at Tuol Sleng Prison, or S21, where he was tortured and murdered.

The man who ran that ''factory of death'' and responsible for at least 12,000 deaths, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, is the only person who has been sentenced in the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

He was found guilty in 2010 and sentenced to 35 years in prison, which was reduced to 30 years to reflect the time he had already spent in detention. Duch appealed that sentence.

After a year of deliberation the Supreme Court Chamber announced yesterday that the sentence was ''manifestly inadequate'', and sentenced him to life.

But there has been little justice for the millions of people who lost their lives, or for their families who live on, not knowing what happened to their loved ones, and having to accept that they will probably never find out.

Kethana Dunnet is one of those. She moved to New Zealand in 1968 to study English and returned to a changing Cambodia for a short holiday in 1972, which is when she last saw her eight siblings and parents.

''I spoke to my father in 1974,'' she says. ''That was the last time I heard from him.''

She has no idea what happened to them.

Mrs Dunnet remained in New Zealand, married and had a child. She and her husband Bruce returned to Cambodia in 2002 and now in Siem Reap, a city vastly changed from the one she left more than four decades ago.

But Cambodia is still reeling from the war, which started in 1975: most Cambodians know someone who was killed, or someone who did the killing.

They want to forget those three years, eight months and 20 days as they are too painful to think about, let alone speak of.

But there are some who will never be able to forget, or wipe the images of death from their minds.

Most days Chum Mey travels to the court to sit metres away from the man who ran the jail where he was imprisoned. He was one of the few to survive S21, where as many as 20,000 met their deaths.

''[The prison guards] beat me and broke one of my little fingers, they pulled my finger and toe nails, they electrocuted me which caused damages on my left ear. Even today I am unable to hear anything on that ear,'' Mr Mey has said of time in prison. He was spared only because his mechanical skills were invaluable.

Duch will remain at the small jail less than 100 meters away from the purpose built court in the capital Phnom Penh. His cell is next to four other Khmer leaders on trial. They have visiting hours, an hour exercise each day, and can watch television with each other _ a far cry from what S21 offered.

Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are being tried together, with former New Zealand Governor-General Dame Sylvia Cartwright one of the judges to decide their fate.

With the first phase of the trial to last at least 12 months, to be followed by three more phases, they are likely to die before any decision is made.

Fourth accused Ieng Thirith was severed from the case last year due to ill health, but that decision was overturned and a medical assessment in May will determine whether she is fit to face trial.

Mrs Cartwright is one of two international judges who sit with three Cambodian judges in the Trial Chamber, which in 2010 found Duch guilty.

She has lived in Phnom Penh, a hot, humid and chaotic city, since 2008, and says her experience at the court has been ''fascinating, if incredibly frustrating''.

As the most senior-appointed official by the UN, Mrs Cartwright sees it as her responsibility to not only make sure the trials are held efficiently, but that the court is also managed in an honest and professional way.

But it is not without its challenges, or controversy.

Defence lawyers publicly criticised her last year for meeting with the prosecution team, something she admits to doing, but says she had little choice.

The Defence Counsel ''put more emphasis on disruption than representing their clients,'' she says.

''It's a very common strategy by Defence Counsel. There's been an application to accuse me twice, once as a member of the entire tribunal and once personally and there have been other applications to accuse the president, who is Cambodian, and other Cambodian judges.''

She was asked by the UN two years ago to hold regular meetings with various parties to discuss ''governance'' issues. ''I resisted for some time but realised it was essential so we meet to discuss such crucial issues as the budget for the court, staff issues, problems with IT, those sorts of things. Largely management issues that affect the conduct of the trial.''

There are ''thousands'' of challenges working in the court system, some of which stem from documents having to be produced in three languages: Khmer, English and French.

''We find even our basic rules of procedure there are major differences around the three versions, although the judges actually wrote them,'' she says.

''We have to resolve these at a technical level because they have an impact on our decisions, quite frequently.''

Other challenges result from a lack of experienced Cambodian lawyers and judges, because the Khmer Rouge targetted for death the most intelligent.

''There's nothing wrong with their abilities,'' Mrs Cartwright says.

''But what we're talking about is a generation almost below me in terms of age and experience, so they just don't have that wealth of experience that other countries can draw from.''

At least 1.7 million - perhaps as many as three million - were killed under the rule of Pol Pot, which took control April 17, 1975.

Within days it had cleared out the cities, shut down institutions, police stations, and separated families, sending women and children to one place, and men to another.

Its aim was to create a communist country based on agriculture and in doing so it had to wipe out intellectuals, or anyone who resisted its ideals - about one person in four.

Anyone who had soft hands, spoke a foreign language or wore glasses was killed. Music would blare out of loud speakers at the killing fields, masking the screams of those being tortured, or beaten and hacked to death.

There were 300 killing fields in Cambodia. To this day, bone fragments, teeth and torn pieces of clothing emerge from the surface, constant reminders of what occurred.

Vietnamese troops stormed Cambodia on January 7, 1979, pushing the Khmer Rouge into the north. The nation regained control, but the Khmer Rouge maintained a presence until the late 1990s.

Pol Pot died in 1998 while under arrest. Many of his soldiers had turned against him, including Hun Sen, who fled to Vietnam, the country which appointed him Foreign Minister when it installed the People's Republic of Kampuchea in 1979. He is now prime minister.

Discontent remains. Education and health care is poor and equality is a foreign concept. But Cambodians don't dare speak out, because those that do face dire consequences.

At least eight Cambodian journalists have been killed in the past two decades. Most reported on corruption and politics, such as Khem Sambo, who in 2008 was shot dead while riding his motorbike with his son, who was also murdered.

While most live on less than $200 a month, some earn more than $10,000, if they have the right connections.

Others sleep on filthy streets, in hammocks, or tuk tuks. Many have been injured or killed by landmines laid to keep the Khmer Rouge out, or which the Khmer Rouge lay to deter their enemies.

Around 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture to make a living, but they are cautious to expand into unknown territory as it could be riddled with mines.

Women have turned to prostitution, as the best way to make a living, as unskilled jobs pay only about $160 a month - with only three or four hours of public school a week being free, money can buy you a better education, and a better future.

Everyone knows there is corruption, but few want to do anything about it as they are frightened of change.
Change to Cambodians means horror, destruction and death.

Michelle Cooke travelled to Cambodia with support from AsiaNZ.


Dozens of pits are evident at the Killing Fields site in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.
BODY PITS: Dozens of pits are evident at the Killing Fields site in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. It is just one of 300 sites where people were killed and buried together in mass graves.
Kethana Dunnet, pictured with husband Bruce, believes her eight siblings and parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. She hasn't heard from them since 1974.
KHMER ROUGE KILLINGS: Kethana Dunnet, pictured with husband Bruce, believes her eight siblings and parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. She hasn't heard from them since 1974.