Monday, July 10, 2006

Cambodia tries to lay 'killing fields' to rest at last

War-crimes judges to be sworn in today amid prayers for 1.7 million victims

Special to The Globe and Mail

ANLONG SAH, CAMBODIA -- Amid the coconut groves, bamboo stilt houses and paddy fields of this Cambodian village, a wiry middle-aged rice farmer and father of nine is preparing to recount his career as a Khmer Rouge executioner.

Since the fall of the brutal regime, Him Huy, 52, has lived quietly, much like the estimated 30,000 other former low- and mid-level Khmer Rouge cadres. To the chagrin of some surviving victims, there is no prospect individuals such as Mr. Huy will be charged with crimes committed in their former roles, as the authorities fear such a step would reignite civil war.

Instead, he will soon be a willing accuser in a tribunal that takes its first symbolic step today after 10 years of muddle, delay and procrastination. Seventeen Cambodian and 13 international judges will attend a swearing in ceremony in Phnom Penh's ancient palace with priests reciting prayers for the souls of the 1.7 million Khmer Rouge victims.

Next year, two aged survivors from the party's top leadership are to be tried for crimes against humanity and genocide for their roles in the killing fields between 1975 and 1979.

Organizers of the $56.3-million (U.S.), UN-backed trial hope it will bring a measure of justice and help Cambodia confront its traumatic past.

Mr. Huy just wants a chance to explain his actions.

His neighbours already know what he did. Most have seen his photograph alongside black and white portraits of thousands of victims in the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, the school building in the capital that became Cambodia's most notorious interrogation centre.

When he was recruited into a predominantly teenage guerrilla army in 1973, Mr. Huy was a homesick 17-year-old village boy, he says, and insists that after its victory he was brainwashed with Maoist propaganda, then forced to inflict pain and execute enemies of the regime.

Harrowing paintings in the museum by a survivor show devilish-looking guards whipping and drowning inmates, but Mr. Huy says he is a victim of the regime's evil as much as anyone else.

"I was forced to be part of that clique."

His old commander at Tuol Sleng, a former math teacher called Duch, will be one of the two defendants when proceedings get under way next year in a converted military barracks. The other will be Ta Mok, known as "the butcher."

The ambition is to prosecute about 12 defendants during the five years the hearings are expected to last, although, as most of the likely accused are in their 70s and 80s, there are doubts whether they will live long enough to hear the verdicts.

The trial still has no exact start date, funding is short, and there has been criticism of the competence and independence of the Cambodian judges from human-rights groups and the Cambodian royal family. There are fears that there will not be any real investigation because of links between government members and the old regime.

Prime Minister Hun Sen was himself in the Khmer Rouge until he defected in 1977, although nobody is accusing him of any crimes.

Prince Thomico Sisowath, who lost his parents in the massacres, said: "If the government really wanted this trial to delve into Cambodia's past, they would have held it in The Hague. I am very doubtful about how it will work in practice. There are too many links between the ruling party and the Khmer Rouge."

Senior Khmer Rouge leaders still live openly in Cambodia, including "Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan and former foreign minister Ieng Sary, who has a mansion in Phnom Penh next door to the homes of some of his former victims. They may eventually find themselves on trial.

And that gives some hope to at least one of the seven surviving inmates from the thousands tortured in Tuol Sleng. Chum Mey, now 76, was a lorry driver when he was accused of being a CIA spy in November of 1978.

He remembers the Khmer Rouge cadres as swaggering teenagers with AK-47s who enjoyed projecting an aura of fear.

Although Mr. Huy had left the prison by the time Mr. Mey was sent there, he has met the former executioner several times in recent years, arguing with him last week during a radio station phone-in, and believes he should be on trial.

"The prison guards were not victims," he said. "While I was waiting to die, they were waiting to kill."

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which researches the killings, believes the hearings are needed.

"Although Cambodia today looks normal," he said, "underneath people are still traumatized. The perpetrators need a trial most of all. It will help them to understand what they did."

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