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A Wasted Opportunity for Justice

photo from personal collection

1.7 million killed. 4 years of starvation, torture and bloodshed. A country ripped apart. In one of the most brutal atrocities in recent history, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, between 1975 and 1979, systematically murdered almost one-third of its population. Finally, on July 25th, more than 30 years after the Khmer Rouge was pushed from power, a United-Nations backed court convicted one Khmer official for his involvement in the killings. The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, died in custody in 1998. Kaing Guek Eav, more commonly known as Duch, served as leading official of the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21, overseeing the torture and killing of more than 14,000 people.  Duch has claimed that he had not visited the prison’s cells and torture chambers, admitting cowardice and ignorance.

The court sentenced Duch to 35 years in prison, which has been reduced  to 19 years for  time already served and for a period of illegal detention. The court took into account Duch’s cooperation, his limited expressions of remorse and a possibility for rehabilitation.  Understandably, The reaction to Duch’s sentence has been fury. The idea that this man could one day walk free is too much to bear for a population whose suffering is still unresolved. As one former prisoner of S-21 prison so aptly puts in, “We are victims two times, once in the Khmer Rouge time and now once again.” Cambodia has no death penalty, but the prosecution sought a 40-year sentence. Duch plans to appeal the sentence.

Last year, I visited Cambodia’s S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where blood stains still lay visible on the cells’ floors. It was an unbelievable experience to see a even small picture of what Cambodia went through just about three decades ago and to walk outside where the elderly stand playing with children. The Cambodian people deserve justice. Instead, they have another tragedy to add to their history books. Although Duch is the first of five officials to be tried, there is little hope of any real justice.

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