Kuong Ly: Justice Denied for Cambodians

Kuong Ly (MA ’07) penned the following New York Times/International Herald Tribune op-ed piece:

Justice Denied for Cambodians
By Kuong Ly, IHT Op-Ed Contributor
The New York Times
August 2, 2010

Last week, a U.N.-backed tribunal convicted Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, for war crimes in what was the first trial of a major Khmer Rouge figure. Many media reports portrayed the verdict in a positive light, but for survivors, victims and their families, there was nothing positive in this outcome.

An editorial in the International Herald Tribune (“Forgotten victims?” July 29) stated that while the sentence handed down by the tribunal may be disappointing, at least Duch was held to account for his war crimes. Unfortunately, “at least” isn’t good enough for me and for those who suffered from the murderous actions of the Khmer Rouge, especially after waiting 30 years for this verdict.

My mother and my late father both endured what are known as the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia. They lost their siblings, parents and home when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April, 1975.

Somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population — were executed or died from disease, starvation and overwork. My family was forced to flee Cambodia and suffered in the poverty of refugee camps for almost a decade before making it to the United States, where we overcame tremendous obstacles in trying to rebuild our lives.

As I followed the trial of Duch and heard him take responsibility for directing the notorious prison, S-21, where more than 12,273 people were tortured and killed, I was confident the court would place him behind bars for life. But last week, he was given a 35-year sentence. Because Duch had served several years in prison while awaiting trial, and the Cambodian government infringed upon his rights while he was detained, his sentence was significantly reduced.

In the end, Duch was sentenced to no more than 19 years behind bars. That translates to one year for every 646 Cambodians he tortured and killed at S-21. This does not include the millions of Cambodians like my parents who suffered under the Khmer Rouge policies he helped implement. The feeling of injustice for me and many others stems from knowing that Duch may walk free at age 86.

Survivors, victims and their families have been asked to see the silver lining in Duch’s verdict. Impunity has finally been broken, many observers reason. A perpetrator of the Khmer Rouge regime was brought to justice by legal proceedings for the world to watch, they say. And in reducing Duch’s sentence by 16 years, some will argue, the tribunal was attempting demonstrate the rule of law and lead by example — in a country where thousands of citizens are illegally detained.

From the beginning, I harbored grave doubts about these legal proceedings. The U.N.-backed tribunal resulted from the lack of judicial independence in Cambodia. I was willing to look past the criticism and cynicism in hopes that a guilty verdict and a heavy punishment in Duch’s case would set a precedent for future international criminal cases. The international community, I reasoned, had an opportunity to deter other ruthless, oppressive regimes from committing genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity. But the tribunal failed to deliver a satisfactory verdict.

If the Duch verdict foreshadows the tribunal’s next case — the trial of the senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan — there will be a decline in support from the Cambodian people — and perhaps the world community.

I will never forget how my late father was used like an ox to plow and till the land. Nor will I forget that my maternal grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins were either starved to death, beaten to death, or disappeared.

No verdict will heal the pain. But for survivors, victims and their families, this verdict was simply not good enough. We may have to accept that the international community denied us — and those we lost — a sense of closure.

More than 12,273 people entered Duch’s S-21 prison and were tortured and killed. While Duch will be in prison for 19 years, the possibility remains that he may one day walk free. Is that justice?

Kuong Ly is an L.L.M. candidate in International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex, where he is a British Marshall Scholar.

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