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Cambodia begins emotional journey with trial

UN-backed court examines the torture and murder perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.

A dispute between the co-prosecutors in December, with the Cambodian lawyer opposing additional prosecutions, prompted criticisms that her motives are political. Unless these allegations are resolved, Duch’s trial and the court as a whole will be deemed illegitimate, argues defense coordinator Richard Rogers. “The U.N. doesn’t want to find itself, five years down the line, having supported a court that is seen as a failure,” he says.
Duch’s lawyer, Francois Roux, says that regardless of the controversies, his client wants his trial to proceed and has cooperated with co-investigating judges since he was transferred to the court in 2007. Duch was arrested a decade ago, after British photojournalist Nic Dunlop discovered him living as a teacher in Battambang province.
“It’s God’s will that you are here,” Duch, now a born-again Christian, told Dunlop. “I feel very sorry about the killings and the past.” Duch maintains his contrition to this day, his lawyer Roux says, adding, “He is really eager to talk to the victims and beg them pardon.”
At the start of the trial today, Duch placed his palms to his forehead and bowed to the judges before he responded to questions about his aliases and family history. A court clerk then read aloud the charges against him and Duch dutifully read along, his expression unchanged when she listed some of the most inhumane acts allegedly committed at the prison with his approval — medical experimentation, the force-feeding of feces and the rape of a female prisoner with a stick.
Reading the indictment took all day and opening statements were postponed until tomorrow. At the end of the hearing, Duch stood, his dress pants hiked high on his waist to reveal bright white socks, and bowed again to the judges.
“Little by little, Duch rediscovers his humanity,” his lawyer says.
The defense’s portrayal of Duch as a contrite old man is a ploy to elicit a lenient sentence, argues Robert Petit, chief international prosecutor. “[Duch] may have admitted that at S-21, crimes were committed,” Petit explains. “That doesn’t mean he’s admitted what his responsibility looks like.” During the course of the estimated four-month trial, Petit says he plans to make Duch’s responsibility clear.
Because the court primarily follows Cambodian law, which is grounded in the French civil law system, Duch cannot plead guilty anyway. A confession from Duch is considered one of many statements. Besides, says Petit, who knows what motivates Duch to apologize.
He points out: “You don’t take a mass murderer’s word on its face.”
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