The Khmer Tribunal: justice lost in translation?

By Gea Wijers Last week, on July 26, the trial chamber for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) found Kaing Guek Eav (68), alias Duch, the former head of the Tuol Sleng prison under the Pol Pot regime guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions. He was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment.

As the prison records show, Duch may be held responsible for the deaths by torture, killing and malnutrition, of at least 15,000 people. How can it be that a person with this incredible death record gets away with “only” 35 years imprisonment? Moreover, adding insult to injury, in reality he will only have to spend the next 19 years behind bars. Is this justice? For the victims and their families here in Cambodia and overseas, it certainly doesn’t feel like that.

Bou Meng escaped Tuol Sleng. The pain of the memories mark her face as she recounts how she once arrived there and stared death in the face. Back then, I cried when arriving. But now I am crying again when I heard this verdict. Many others feel like her, and the 90 plaintiffs involved in this process have already appealed against the ECCC’s decision, probably with little success. With regard to international standards this verdict may be considered fair and just, says Heather Ryan from the Open Justice Society Initiative. These international courts often reserve the severest punishments for the leaders. Duch was only a “manager”, saying he was “following orders”. He has cooperated with the ECCC and even expressed some remorse over his deeds. Also, he has already spent nine years in prison awaiting this trial, so 19 years seems very reasonable.

That may be so, but who can explain this to the people of Cambodia? In the trade-off between upholding international standards and finally absolving the suffering of the Khmer Rouge victims, it feels like justice just got lost in translation.

Gea Wijers is a PhD candidate with the Center for Comparative Social Studies (CCSS) and the Cambodia Research Group at the VU. This month, she has started her second three months fieldwork period, this time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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