One guilty, how many to go?

As anybody following Southeast Asia has probably heard, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has sentenced Duch to 30 years imprisonment (reduced by 11 years for time already served) for his role in the Khmer Rouge genocide. This is significant less because of the result (Duch essentially confessed his guilt), but rather for the fact that it was actually reached. After all, 30 years is not a particularly heavy sentence for genocide, but it reflects the first time a KR leader has been sentenced by a court with some semblance of legal legitimacy.


In a recent East-West Center Asia-Pacific Bulletin (published before the Duch verdict), Kheang Un and Judy Ledgerwood discussed the KRT and some of its implications for Cambodia. On the public awareness front, the KRT seems to have had some success. According to a 2009 DC-Cam survey, 92.7% of interviewees strongly supported the tribunal, up from 69% an IRI survey the previous year. The author’s credit television programs such as the British-sponsored Duch on Trial and other outreach.

However, Duch’s case was the low-hanging fruit of the KRT process. Despite a last-minute plea for mercy, he essentially cooperated with the court and confessed his crimes (and the trial was still very expensive). The KRT has a mandate to try at least four more other KR leaders, none of whom has taken Duch’s conciliatory approach. As such, it’s unclear how successful the KRT will be in future cases.

Kheang Un and Judy Ledgerwood are much more pessimistic about Cambodia’s own judicial system. The courts are understaffed and underfunded. Judges often face resistance from the police in executing warrants and arrest orders. While some advocates of the KRT hoped the presence of an international justice system might spur reforms (or at least a healthy envy), this seems unlikely. As the authors note, no matter how much they might respect or prefer the international standards of the KRT, Cambodian judges must respond to domestic political pressures. Unless the CPP government’s attitude towards the judiciary and judicial reform changes, the KRT will likely be a footnote to Cambodian judicial history, not a spur for reform.

Here’s a useful website by the Phnom Penh Post for more background on the KRT and Duch trial.

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