Cambodians hope KRouge trial can heal past wounds

Cambodia's first war crimes trial has unearthed painful ghosts from the brutal Khmer Rouge era, but as testimony ends in the case there is growing hope that it will put past traumas to rest.

A collective grave buring Khmer Rouge's victims in Toul Sleng prison

Moeurn Sarath, whose father and husband were among the two million people who died under the 1975-1979 communist regime, said it was too painful for her to watch the trial of Duch, the movement's main jailer.

Yet while she said that the proceedings made "all those feelings come back to me again," she believes that the UN-backed tribunal is good for victims and their families.

"It is good to try those leaders because they have killed a lot of people," she said. "I pray that those people who died are at rest because now justice is being found for them."

The six-month evidence phase of the trial at the UN-backed court ended on Thursday, with the prosecution and defence due to present their final arguments to the judges on November 23. A verdict is not expected until early 2010.

The trial has heard Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, repeatedly accept responsibility and beg forgiveness for his role overseeing the torture and killing of over 15,000 as chief of Tuol Sleng prison.

Proceedings have been shown on a weekly television show in Cambodia and the court said that an average of around 300 people a day came to the tribunal to watch from behind bullet-proof glass.

Few Cambodians told AFP they regularly watched proceedings, but all held some hope it would heal the mental wounds in a country that remains strewn with mass graves and bone-filled memorials.

"Every day I have to work and spend less time with the news on TV or newspaper," said motorcycle taxi driver Sok Rorn, 45, whose mother was killed under the Khmer Rouge.

"But of course, I am aware of the trial. For certain, those people responsible for the death of my parent and many other Cambodians must be held accountable," he added, with tears in his eyes.

Led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia's cities in a bid to forge a communist utopia.

This year the Cambodian government has agreed for the first time to include a text on the Khmer Rouge in its high school curriculum, a key move in a country where more than 70 percent of the population was born after 1979.

"I have heard and learnt very little about the regime and all those stories. Maybe because I've not experienced it, I am not interested to find out more about it," said Dav Sam Ath, an 18-year-old high school student.

"I'm sure the trial will help heal (victims') pain because if nobody can give them the answers of the past, how can they go on?"

Michelle Staggs, deputy director of the East-West Centre's Asian International Justice Initiative, said Duch's trial has offered important opportunities for witnesses.

"Some powerful symbolic moments have emerged at the trial," Staggs said.

One powerful moment occurred last week when Duch invited victims to visit him in prison, opening the door for ongoing discussion about the past, Staggs said.

Those watching Duch's trial have seen his defence team argue he is filled with remorse, and oversaw mass killing out of fear leaders would kill him and his family.

"I tried to survive on a daily basis, and that's what happened. Yes, you could say I'm a cowardly person," the 66-year-old said in court last week.

Of the five former Khmer Rouge leaders currently being held in the purpose-built jail at the war crimes court, Duch is the only one who has admitted guilt for atrocities committed by the regime.

The trial, his defence team says, is an important step in the reconstruction of Cambodia after decades of civil war. His lawyers have also argued judges ought to be lenient after their client's public displays of contrition.

But prosecutors accuse the former maths teacher of minimising his leadership role, and he has also denied several allegations he personally tortured and killed prisoners.

After Duch, the court plans to try former Khmer Rouge ideologue Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, minister of social affairs Ieng Thirith.

But the troubled tribunal has been hit by accusations local staff were forced to pay kickbacks for their jobs and allegations of political interference as premier Hun Sen has warned he wants no more ex-cadres arrested.

Cheng Chansok, a 53-year-old housewife, says she will wait to see the results from the court.

"It's important to me... I've lost my family members in the regime.

Source: AFP

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