This week marked the start of Cambodia’s first genocide trial thirty years after the end of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

Former Khmer Rouge leaders on trial

Former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was brought before the UN-backed tribunal—the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia—to face charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and homicide. The trial is expected to continue into July 2009.

Duch is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried by the joint UN-Cambodian tribunal. As high commander of the S-21 Security Office, or Toul Sleng prison, Duch is accused of overseeing the torture of thousands. Amnesty International considers S-21 “the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious torture centre,” estimating that 14,000 people were murdered within its walls.

The other four Khmer Rouge defendants will face the tribunal later in the year. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998 and was never brought to trial.

Controversy threatens court

Although the UN-backed tribunal was established three years ago, lack of funds and allegations of corruption have delayed the Khmer Rouge genocide trial. Corruption charges include accusations of kickbacks from Cambodian court employees to government officials. Alarmed by the corruption charges, most international donors halted funding for the tribunal last summer. The tribunal, however, continues to receive funding from the United Nations and most recently benefited from a $200,000 contribution from Japan on March 20.

The long awaited trial has also drawn criticism from human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. They consider the tribunal’s decision to limit prosecution to only five Khmer Rouge leaders an affront to Cambodians given the extent of atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime. Some critics claim former Khmer Rouge members’ are beyond the reach of the tribunal thanks to their ties to the current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

As a result, the court’s legitimacy and objectivity has been placed in question by human rights groups, international aid organizations, and bodies, including the United Nations. The latter reluctantly accepted the composition of the Extraordinary Chambers, which is composed principally of Cambodian judges in addition to international judges and prosecutors.

Khmer Rouge

Pol Pot headed the Khmer Rouge communist government for four years, from 1975 to 1979. During this period, up to two million Cambodians (from a population estimated at between seven and eight million) perished.

In their effort to transform Cambodia (renamed Democratic Kampuchea) into an agrarian-based communist society, the Khmer Rouge murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands. Families were displaced and separated; forced labour, systematic executions, disease and starvation were widespread.

A Vietnamese invasion in 1979 defeated the Khmer Rouge, through the organization maintained resistance movements into the 1990s. Pol Pot officially dismantled the regime in 1996. Today, Cambodia is one of the world’s least developed countries. The Khmer Rouge period remains a painful, omnipresent legacy for the nation, including for victims’ children born since 1979.

Possible closure

Given decades’ delay in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, Cambodians are keenly aware of the advancing age of both victims and suspects. Duch has spent the last ten years in prison awaiting trial, and is the only defendant to have expressed remorse for his crimes. The remaining four elderly Khmer Rouge suspects are in failing health; they all deny knowledge or responsibility for atrocities committed during the Pol Pot regime.

Prosecutors are fearful that additional delays will mean perpetrators will die before they are held accountable for their crimes, depriving the victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities and their families a measure of peace. Bringing Duch to trial today should help allay their fears.