Letters of Life

When a Higher Court is Needed

The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong. Winston Churchill, 1874-1965

Where there are too many policemen, there is no liberty. Where there are too many soldiers, there is no peace. Where there are too many lawyers, there is no justice. Lin YuTang, 1895-1976

When I first visited Phnom Penh in the mid-90s, the dusty Cambodian capital was the first Third World city about which I could form an independent opinion. Jakarta and Manila, which belonged in my childhood vacation memories, didn’t count.

That was when I visited Tuol Sleng, the infamous genocide museum in downtown Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng was a former high school turned hell-on-earth for 16,000 Cambodian men, women, and children, who were meticulously photographed, catalogued, starved, tortured and killed, from 1975 to 1979. The cries of the innocent went largely unheard in a pre-CNN world already deafened by the reverb and feedback from the Vietnam War and backstage, or so it seeemed, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime had its four-year-long day in the sun.

It was 1995. The guide who walked my group through the classrooms of Tuol Sleng, filled with black-and-white portrait-like photographs of the prisoners, many of them just youths, described the torture inflicted on the citizens by Pol Pot’s henchmen. Faded bloodstains on the tiled floors spoke the pain and misery of the captured, as did the barbed wire fencing the upper balconies to prevent suicides.

Flash forward to July 26th, 2010. Two days ago, a UN-backed war crimes tribunal (costing S$200 million and ten years to get going) sentenced the chief jailer in Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, Kaing Guek Eav, to 35 years in prison for his part in the torture and killing the citizens of Phnom Penh 35 years ago.

The sentence marks the first time a major figure in the regime has been brought to account for his part in the “killing fields” genocide, that claimed the lives of about 1.7 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population. However, 16 years have been shaved off his imprisonment for the time he spent for time already served. Justice is blind. The 67-year-old ex-Khmer Rouge prison director can walk out before his 86th birthday, if paroled on good behavior. Justice is all about irony.

According to the BBC online reports, “Victims and their relatives were in tears after hearing that Comrade Duch, as he is known, could one day walk free. ‘I can’t accept this,’ said Saodi Ouch, 46, shaking so hard she could hardly talk. “My family died … my older sister, my older brother. I’m the only one left.’ ” She was only a young girl at the time of Pol Pot’s reign of terror.

The Duch (pronounced “DOIK”) had authorised the tortures and executions – including the pulling out of prisoners’ toenails, administering electric shocks and waterboarding – sometimes taking part himself, the court heard. Duch, 67, has confessed to his crimes, telling the court last year: “I am solely and individually responsible for the loss of at least 12,380 lives.”

For Chum Mey, 79, who miraculously survived Tuol Sleng, the justice meted out will never be enough. Wiping tears from his eyes after the sentencing, the key witness told Associated Press: “See, my tears drop down again. I feel like I was victim during the Khmer Rouge, and now I’m a victim once again.”

More than 1,000 people were present for the verdict, some travelling more than 180 miles by bus. Hundreds packed the trial courtroom itself.

“It’s just unacceptable to have a man who killed thousands of people serving just 19 years,” said Theary Seng, a human rights lawyer whose parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and who has been working with others in the campaign for justice. “Now no one is going to have the energy to look at the second case.”

There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts. Mohandas Gandhi, 1869-1948

Painted by a survivor of Toul Sleng, the painting above hangs with many others in the genocide museum detailing the atrocities under Duch's watch.

Background [from BBC archives]
In early 1999, in a village in northwest Cambodia, an elderly man introduced himself to a journalist. He was Hong Pen, he said, a former teacher from the capital, Phnom Penh. He spoke good English and was wearing the T-shirt of an American aid organisation.

But the photojournalist, Nic Dunlop, recognised his face – it matched a photograph he had carried with him for several months. The picture was of Comrade Duch, the former head of Tuol Sleng prison. The chance meeting with the journalist led to Duch’s detention.

He was to become the first of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to go on trial at Cambodia’s UN-backed genocide court.

Read this for more background on Pol Pot’s regime.


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Categorised in: Been Around The World (Travel), Youth (My History)

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