Filmmaker Socheata Poeuv was outside the courtroom on July 26, 2010, as Kaing Guek Eav (aka Comrade Duch) was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years (19 including time served) by an international tribunal. The director of the Independent Lens film New Year Baby, Poeuv was born in a refugee camp in Thailand during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, which took the lives of many of her family members. She reacts to the verdict and the sentence for Beyond the Box.
On July 26, I went to the Khmer Rouge tribunal (at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh) to listen to the judgment of Comrade Duch, the former commander of S-21 (Tuol Sleng), the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous prison and torture center. Hundreds of Cambodians and journalists also gathered to witness the historic moment.
As the judge read the guilty verdict, I was moved to hear the narrative of Duch’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although I had read of and heard an account of the crimes of S-21 many times in books and films, hearing the legal summary help to legitimize and validate the suffering of victims, including those in my family. I was glad this was now entering the official historical and legal record.
We are now a generation beyond the Khmer Rouge years, yet some survivors still have a hard time understanding what happened to them. They wonder if it was as bad as they remember it. Some start to downplay the impact of what happened. After all, everyone they know went through similar trauma. Maybe their story isn’t so remarkable.
But to hear the judge utter the terms — “extermination,” “torture,” “murder,” and “crimes against humanity” — did help to acknowledge that Khmer Rouge survivors are victims of humanity’s greatest crimes.
Like most Cambodians, I was upset, however, by two things — the reparations and sentence.
As far as I can tell, the reparations to victims amounts to a compilation of Duch’s apologies, which were rendered hollow by his last-ditch request for acquittal (one cannot be innocent and also sorry). Further, the remaining sentence for Duch of 19 years means he could be free in his lifetime.
Cambodians have no faith in the justice system. I cling to some shred of hope that the ECCC prosecutors may have strategically exchanged a lighter to gain Duch’s cooperation in the upcoming prosecution of higher-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders.
Ultimately though, the resolution of Duch’s trial has left the victims, civil parties, and all Cambodians despondent. I hope that the ECCC eventually redeems itself.
Watch a clip from Director Socheata Poeuv‘s film New Year Baby