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Justiție în sfârșit pentru poporul cambodgian

de (14-2-2009)

Today it is a peaceful nation, its tranquil countryside rich, its towns and markets prosperous and full of tourists. But 30 years ago Cambodia was a hell on earth, a country ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a deranged clique of manic Maoists intent on systematic genocide. More than 1.7 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, were killed in four years, as a terrorised nation was driven from the towns to starve to death in the fields or to die after horrific torture in camps set up to murder anyone suspected of being an intellectual, a class enemy or a worker who did not fulfil his quota.

There was no greater crime in the late 20th century than the four-year slaughter that began in 1976 and lasted until the overthrow of Pol Pol’s regime by the Vietnamese. It was not just the scale of the genocide – equivalent to the murder of 15 million Britons; it was the unspeakable cruelty of those who calmly applied electrodes to the victims’ ears and waited until the screaming stopped before the formulaic interrogation that ended, in every case, with guards clubbing the prisoners kneeling beside a ditch while others came round to slit their throats. When the killings in the fields and torture centres set up in schools finally ended, Cambodia was left silent and traumatised with only heaps of skulls to bear witness to what happened.

No one has yet had to answer for these crimes. The Khmer Rouge leaders melted away into the jungle and little effort was made to find them. Pol Pot died an undeservedly peaceful death in his hideout in 1998. Ta Mok, his brutal henchman, died in 2006. Others now live in anonymous comfort behind the high walls of their Phnom Penh villas. One of the worst was Kang Kek Ieu, known as Comrade Duch, who was director of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and devised the regime of cruelty that terrorised and killed the perpetrators as well as the victims. This Himmler of the Khmer Rouge was, however, found, tracked down by a journalist in Thailand, and arrested in 1996. And on Tuesday, the thin, frail former schoolmaster goes on trial.

Thirty years is a very long time to wait for justice. Most Cambodians despaired that they would ever see their torturers in the dock or find out what drove men to such barbarity. It is as if the Nuremberg trials did not begin until 1975. The delay is partly due to politics – too many of the murderous regime were able to thwart investigations later, including Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s brother-in-law and the Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister who was arrested only two years ago. Partly also the delay was due to disagreement over who would control any tribunal and what the role of the United Nations should be. A compromise has created the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, a hybrid body that will try the handful of elderly defendants.

The trials are an essential, if belated, catharsis for a nation that has still to come to terms with its past. As with all mass killings, reconciliation is possible only after the perpetrators have been identified. Without the trials of those responsible for the horrors in Bosnia and Rwanda, entire ethnic groups would be branded and revenge would be inevitable. The outside world is rightly involved: crimes on this scale are an indictment of humanity. Their catalogue will be unbearably painful. But the awful details must be revealed.


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