In a trial, Khmer Rouge leaders could face their own smoking gun

An all-but-forgotten part of the Khmer Rouge puzzle surfaced last week. The director of the prison where some 16,000 Cambodians were slain under torture was discovered living a quite life as a Christian convert.

Scholars say Kaing Khek Iev, long believed to be dead, can connect other top Khmer Rouge leaders to the killings at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge rule. The prison was used to question and then kill alleged opponents of the paranoid Maoist regime.

The director, known back then as Duch, confessed his role to a magazine. His testimony could become the centerpiece of attempts to bring the perpetrators of the "killing fields" regime to justice.

With a newfound faith, Duch said he is willing to testify and face the consequences. "I have done very bad things in my life," he told the Far Eastern Economic Review. "Now it is time for les reprsailles [to bear the consequences] of my actions.

"For the trial itself, I do not worry, it is up to [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen and Jesus."

But Hun Sen may not appreciate his new decisionmaking partner. Observers say Duch has thrown a wrench into the prime minister's plans for a well-scripted trial. Hun Sen's plan is to make a trial in a Cambodian court acceptable to the international community - allowing international judges and lawyers but controlling which Khmer Rouge leaders will see trial.

DIPLOMATS here are becoming disillusioned at the lack of initiative from the international community. While Hun Sen has been making overtures to internationalize a trial, no one has stepped up to engage the prime minister and nudge him closer to the world's goal: a full-fledged international tribunal.

"Now it is more urgent for someone to figure out where to go from here," says one Western diplomat. "It's wrong to let Hun Sen make all the decisions, because I don't think he wants to.... The hope is the UN is going to work on this."

Some former Khmer Rouge in Pailin are eager for a wide-ranging international tribunal, simply because they want to know who was responsible for "poisoning" their movement. But in their opinion, any trial must include the US, which carpet-bombed the country in the 1970s and forced more people into the arms of Communist maquis. Their version of a trial would also include the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupiers and Hun Sen, himself a Khmer Rouge cadre who fled to Vietnam and returned with the occupying force.

"I want to have a trial, because I want to know who the real killer was," says Yean Ban, a Pailin resident who insists the Khmer Rouge's top leaders were good and that overzealous "low-level operators" did most of the killing.

Recently, Cambodian prosecutors have pledged to charge last December's Khmer Rouge defectors Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea in a local trial - adding them to the docket with Ta Mok, the rebel commander caught in March.

"What's left undone is turning the whole affair over to the Hague tribunal," says Craig Ethcheson, a genocide researcher. "Even should the unexpected happen and Cambodia manages to mete out impartial justice ... there are many who simply would not believe it, based upon the twisted history of the regime and its personalities."

The UN's human rights envoy for Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, will arrive May 10 for a two-week stay that will include a discussion of the Khmer Rouge issue. Some officials worry Mr. Hammarberg's trip may be monopolized by the proposed trial. They want attention paid to issues such as land rights and health access.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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