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Cambodia's first step toward justice for Khmer Rouge

Kaing Guek Eav, who led the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison, was indicted Tuesday.

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Yet Duch's attorney argues that his client's long detention meets neither Cambodian nor international standards of justice and has asked that he be released on bail. The judges decided to detain him for up to a year anyway, on the grounds that the crimes he's accused of are so grievous that releasing him might disrupt Cambodia's "fragile" public order and threaten his personal safety. It was not immediately clear whether Duch would choose to appeal his yearlong detention under the authority of the court, called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

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Duch's personal safety has been a question ever since photojournalist Nic Dunlop unmasked him in 1999. A Christian convert, Duch had been living in rural Cambodia under a pseudonym.

A vital link for the Khmer Rouge

Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent archive that has supplied reams of historical evidence to the tribunal, said that as the commander of a special state prison for Khmer Rouge members suspected of treason, Duch was a vital link between the cadres on the ground and the regime's top leadership.

"He is the middle person, the joint," Mr. Youk said. And that, he added, could be dangerous.

In a 1999 interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Duch – and the UN – expressed concerns for his safety. At that point, Duch brashly implicated Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok – a notoriously brutal Khmer Rouge commander who died last year – and Son Sen, the Khmer Rouge defense minister, who was executed in 1997, in the carnage of those years.

Mr. Dunlop, who wrote about his discovery of Duch in "The Lost Executioner," said he worried that Duch might distance himself from his past and try to hide behind claims that he was just following orders once he takes the stand.

"When [Duch] spoke in 1999, he accepted his own role in the killings and began to establish a chain of command of how orders were given and carried out and by who. His testimony should be a pivotal moment if he does speak the truth on the stand and so it could be very damaging," Dunlop wrote in an email.

An even longer wait

Even as the judicial process moves forward, other parts of the court are lagging. Victims still eagerly circle outside the tribunal, unsure how to get involved. A promised victim's unit, which would oversee victims' claims, has yet to take shape. Witness protection remains a key concern for court staffers. Charges of corruption at the highest levels of the court have yet to be publicly investigated, and the Cambodian side of the tribunal is facing an imminent budgetary crisis. Fundraising will have to begin soon if the court is to function as planned.

Meanwhile, the United States is still withholding direct funding from the tribunal. Piper Campbell, the chargé d'affairs at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, said charging Duch was a "welcome step forward." But she added: "The tribunal's proceedings, which under the civil law system are still at a stage where most of the work is conducted confidentially, have not yet reached a point" where the Department of State can assess whether they meet international standards.

All this adds to the skepticism among Cambodians and international observers. For some of Duch's alleged victims – of whom only a handful survived – justice still seems elusive at best.

Painter Vann Nath, one of a handful of survivors of S21, says it's still too early to celebrate. "I'm not happy yet," he says. "I'm waiting to see the result. It has already been too long."