Friday, April 04, 2014

Master of Confessions

Two months ago, the appeals process ended in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, the only person to have been convicted thus far in Cambodia's special genocide tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Comrade Duch, to use the defendant's more familiar nom de guerre, was the top Khmer Rouge official at S-21, the infamous makeshift prison in Phnom Penh, where, between 1975 and early 1979, over 12,000 people were held and tortured before being transported to their executions in the killing fields outside of the city. The sentence handed down by the mixed Cambodian/international tribunal in 2010 had been 30 years in prison; the appellate division changed the term to life imprisonment for the 69-year-old Duch.

Four others who bear even more responsibility for the slaughter in Cambodia, people much older and more feeble than Duch, have been indicted by the ECCC, but it is entirely possible that Duch will be the only person the court ever convicts. Of the four remaining indictees, one died on March 14, 2013, and another had her case dismissed in November 2011 when she was deemed unfit for trial due to the advance of Alzheimer's disease. The two remaining named defendants, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, are 87 and 82, respectively. (There are two additional cases under investigation involving a total of five possible defendants, but their identities remain confidential at this point.)

During his trial, Duch confessed and apologized to his victims' families, many of whom crowded the visitors' galleries when he testified. At one point Duch said, "I sincerely regret to giving in to others' ideas and concepts and to accepting the criminal tasks I was asked to do. When I think about it, I am first angry at the steering committee of the party, who used all sorts of tricks to lead the country to a total and absolute tragedy. I am also angry at myself for agreeing on others' conceptions and for blindly respecting their criminal orders." Duch later angered those to whom he had apologized by asking the court to release him on the grounds that his case did not fall within the competence of the ECCC. He was not, his lawyer argued, a "senior leader" of the Khmer Rouge nor was he one of those "most responsible" for the crimes committed by the regime. The court rejected the claim.

French journalist Thierry Cruvellier has just published a book--The Master of Confessions--about the Duch trial. Farah Stockman, who met Cruvellier while both were covering the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, writes about Cruvellier, his book, and genocide trials here. She notes that Cruvellier is "the world's most dedicated genocide trial junkie," having covered trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the ECCC. Everywhere, she says, Cruvellier asked these questions: "Who is this expensive international justice for? The peasant farmers who give their testimonies, only to return home to poverty and meals less delicious than what the killers eat in UN jails? Was it for the 'international community,' which needed absolution for its failure to stop the killings? Or for killers to get one last shot at forgiveness?"

Stockman concludes that, perhaps, the trials are for history--to help us understand how and why genocide occurs so we can prevent it in the future. Maybe. But trials are a slow and cumbersome way to build knowledge. I would venture to say that the trials are simply for the sake of justice. Certainly not perfect justice: too many killers--in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere--escape prosecution for us to speak of justice except in the highly qualified way that humans must always speak of justice. But, justice nonetheless--as an ideal, perhaps. So that even if Kaing Guek Eav is the only person ever convicted of crimes connected to the Cambodian genocide, we can still affirm that what happened was heinously offensive and that the victims deserve  recognition.

In what kind of world would we not at least attempt to do justice?

Update: George Packer of the New Yorker has a thoughtful review of Cruvellier's book here.