A former member of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime became the first from the ultra-Maoist movement to stand trial before a U.N.-backed tribunal on Tuesday.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, faces charges that include crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions during the regime’s 1975-1979 rule. He is standing trial just outside the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which is made up of Cambodian and international judges. At least 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population — died under the Khmer Rouge from execution, disease, starvation and overwork, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The news of the trial’s start made headlines in the country, and people were feeling “very numb,” said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, where about 20 members of the public had gathered to watch the televised proceedings. “It’s important for Cambodian history, but it’s not exciting the public because it’s not a senior leader,” he told CNN.com by telephone. Still, there was some relief that one of the regime’s former top leaders was facing justice — though Tuesday’s hearing was primarily procedural. “I think there is a feeling of, well you know finally — now it’s finally happening after all these years of waiting — hearing, fighting, negotiating,” he said. “People have that kind of sense of relief that it’s now moving. When I ask people around the center today people say, ‘Oh, it’s about time.'”
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“I think perhaps the expectation is not watching this, but watching later … what they want to see the most is the final judgment of the Khmer Rouge leaders,” he added. One man at the center watching the proceedings, 37-year-old Quen Ieng, said through a translator that the start of the trial was a good step for Cambodia. “It’s for those who have died,” said the carpenter who survived the regime. Four of the regime’s other former leaders are also awaiting trial before the tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A former teacher, Duch ran the Tuol Sleng prison, a high school converted into a center where people were tortured and killed, in Phnom Penh. He was head of the Santebal, which was in charge of internal security and operating prison camps, according to the Cambodia Tribunal Monitor, a group of academic and nonprofit organizations. Duch was indicted on August 12, 2008, the group said.