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For former Khmer Rouge prisoners, reparations are key to justice

Chum Mey and Bou Meng are two of seven prisoners left alive in S-21 prison when the regime fell in 1979, out of more than 14,000 inmates. They testified this week against former leader .

By Contributor / July 3, 2009

Phnom Penh

Thirty years after their torture inside the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison, two elderly Cambodians finally got their day in court as a cash-strapped tribunal attempts to bring justice to victims of one of the 20th century's most serious atrocities.

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"I was beaten for 12 days and 12 nights," Chum Mey, one of the former prisoners, told the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday, detailing how guards pulled out two of his toenails and electrocuted him in 1978.

"I have a lot of scars on my back as evidence of that torture," Bou Meng, the other former prisoner, said during his testimony the next day, dabbing his eyes with a tissue. "They put me face down and then started to beat me. They kept asking me when I entered the CIA or KGB and who introduced me to the agents."

Mr. Chum and Mr. Bou were two of seven prisoners left alive when the regime fell in 1979, out of more than 14,000 inmates. Chum said he survived because he could repair sewing machines, while Bou eluded execution by painting portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who died in 1998.

The men are two of 94 registered civil parties in the trial of S-21's former chief, Kaing Guek Eav, whose alias is Duch. He is the first of five detained former leaders to stand trial. Hearings began Feb. 17 and are expected to last through August, after which judges will determine Duch's guilt and what, if any, reparations to award victims.

'The court needs to calculate [my loss]' in monetary terms

Chum already has a request.

"I want money," he says in a recent interview at S-21 prison, now a museum, in the same room where guards tortured him to confess his involvement in the CIA. "I lost five family members – my wife and four children – and some property under the Khmer Rouge. The court needs to calculate what this equals with money."

"I want compensation from the court," adds Bou, whose wife died in S-21, in a separate interview. Unemployed and living with his children in Kandal Province, he said he struggles to afford travel costs to attend the trial in Phnom Penh. "I want to make a funeral for my wife."

The tribunal's bylaws state "collective and moral" reparations might pay for services for the benefit of victims, although the court has yet to define exactly what this means. As the case against Duch progresses, lawyers and judges are wrangling over how to reconcile the chasm between what victims want versus what the court can give.

A 'novel approach' to international justice

The hybrid court, so called because it combines elements of Cambodian and international law and features both domestic and foreign lawyers and judges, has already taken unprecedented steps to give victims a role in the proceedings. Unlike any other international criminal or hybrid court, the Khmer Rouge tribunal allows victims to register as civil parties with the right to a lawyer and the ability to ask the defendant questions and request investigation into certain crimes.

"It's a novel approach in the field of international justice," Clint Williamson, the US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, said at a recent press conference in Phnom Penh. "We think victim participation in the process is a positive thing, but it should not be taking place because people are seeking some type of monetary remuneration at the end of the process."