Cambodia, Khmer Rouge trial, Pol Pot, Killing Fields
Adrees Latif/AP
Former Khmer Rouge prison commander
Kaing Guek Eav, also know as "Duch,"
looks on during the first day of a
U.N.-backed tribunal.

War-Crime Tribunal to Convene for Khmer Rouge Leader

February 17, 2009 10:58 AM
by Emily Coakley
Kaing Guek Eav, accused of torturing Cambodians during the country’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime, is set to go on trial this week. Most members have gone unpunished.

Tribunal Has Moved Slowly

A trial is scheduled to start today in Cambodia for one of the men accused of torturing people at a notorious torture center during the country’s Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Kaing Guek Eav faces charges of torture, homicide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, Reuters reported. He’s the first of the regime’s “surviving henchmen [to face] justice,” the news service reported. At least 1.5 million Cambodians are thought to have died during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Kaing Guak Eav, also known as Duch, allegedly ran a prison called S-21, in which 16,000 people are thought to have been tortured and killed. Only 14 people are known to have survived.

The tribunal, which the United Nations helped set up, has spent about six years getting to this point.

Though witness testimony won’t start until March, Tuesday’s agenda, which includes “procedural matters,” is “a very important day for the court,” said William Smith, the tribunal’s co-prosecutor, in an interview with Reuters.

“It’s the first time someone is being brought to account for the Khmer Rouge atrocities,” Smith said.

Four other people are waiting to stand trial for their alleged roles in the Khmer Rouge’s regime, though Reuters said it isn’t clear when those trials might start.

Other Khmer Rouge members have been punished for different crimes. In October, three men were each sentenced to 20 years in jail for the 1996 abduction and murder of Christopher Howes and Houn Hourth. Howes was a British citizen who was in Cambodia to help clear land mines, and Hourth was his interpreter, according to Time magazine.

The men were also found guilty of being members of the Khmer Rouge, which is illegal in Cambodia. Another man was also sentenced to 10 years for helping with the abduction, while the court acquitted a fifth man.

Background: The Khmer Rouge and Year Zero

The Khmer Rouge began in the early 1960s as part of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. It became more popular after forming an alliance with Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 after the military toppled his government, according to the BBC.

Cambodia plunged into a civil war that ended when the Khmer Rouge took the capital, Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975.

According to Reuters, Phnom Penh residents initially welcomed Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. That welcome soon faded as Pol Pot renamed Cambodia as Kampuchea and forced the city residents into the countryside to work on communal farms.

Pol Pot wanted to create an agrarian utopia, the BBC says. He banned money, destroyed the central bank, and his troops set about killing “anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort,” because they were considered bourgeois and thus enemies of the Communist party.

Pol Pot called this “Year Zero.” Reuters called it “one of the most violent social experiments in human history.”

People who spoke a foreign language or wore glasses were targeted for imprisonment and torture. Others starved to death or died because of overwork, says the BBC.

Pol Pot himself was educated, having studied radio electronics in Paris on a scholarship. It was there he first became involved in communism, according to Biography.

Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and the rest of the world, which had been largely unaware of the group’s atrocities, gradually learned of them. A movie from 1984 called "The Killing Fields" helped share the survivors’ stories.

Pol Pot retreated to Thailand after the invasion, and by 1997 his colleagues had removed him from the party. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to house arrest, and died in 1998 of natural causes.

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