RAY SUAREZ: Sixty-six-year-old Kaing Guek Eav stood in a Phnom Penh courtroom today and said the words many Cambodians have waited to here for 30 years.
KAING GUEK EAV, Khmer Rouge official (through translator): May I be permitted to apologize to the survivors of the regime and also to the families of the victims whose loved ones died so brutally at S-21? I would like those people to please know — and I would like to apologize and consider my intention that I have not asked you to forgive me now, but I will attempt to do so later.
RAY SUAREZ: S-21 was the prison Kaing ran during the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Sixteen thousand people are alleged to have been tortured or executed at S-21; that number was but a tragic fraction of the regime’s final toll.
Kaing, known by his noms de guerre, Duch, is the first to answer for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. He’s the least senior of five regime officials who will appear before a U.N.-backed genocide tribunal.
The court’s main purpose is to determine the facts of the Khmer Rouge’s reign. It may issue verdicts and sentences. None of the defendants will be executed; Cambodia now has no death penalty.
That’s a far cry from the Khmer Rouge era. Under its leader, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime killed 1.7 million people, one-fifth of the entire Cambodian population, in pursuit of a brutally idealized communist state.
The regime was deposed by the neighboring Vietnamese in 1979. Pol Pot died in 1998 and never had to answer for his crimes.
Duch was the regime’s most notorious jailer and torturer. Yesterday, the first day of the trial, a court official detailed the purpose of the prison he operated.
COURT OFFICIAL (through translator): The primary role of S-21 was to implement the party political line regarding the enemy according to which prisoners absolutely had to be smashed. The term “smashed” was used and widely understand to mean “killed.” Every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution.
RAY SUAREZ: If those prisoners were not killed at S-21, they were often sent to sites known as the killing fields. Robert Petit, of the prosecutors, told what happened there.
ROBERT PETIT, Prosecutor: The victims were brought to pits dug beforehand. There, they were killed by a blow to the base of the neck using steel clubs. The bodies would be kicked into the holes, their handcuffs taken off their lifeless hands, their bellies sliced open, and the pits covered by dirt.
RAY SUAREZ: Duch, who was found posing as an aid worker and detained 10 years ago, is the only one of the five defendants to acknowledge his role in the genocide. His trial is expected to last four months.
Trial delayed for political reasons
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Cambodian tribunal, we turn to Gregory Stanton, director of the Cambodian Genocide Project, which was established to collect Khmer Rouge documents, and called for the trials. He was also a State Department official during the 1990s.
Loung Ung was born in Cambodia. Her parents disappeared in the Khmer Rouge period, but she and five siblings survived. She left Cambodia in 1980 and now lives in Cleveland. She's the author of two memoirs, "First They Killed My Father" and "Lucky Child."
Gregory Stanton, just in the past few weeks, the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge was marked. How come it's taken so long to try significant members of the regime?
GREGORY STANTON, Cambodian Genocide Project: Well, during the Cold War, it was a standoff between the West, which didn't want a trial because it might legitimize the Vietnamese-backed regime in Phnom Penh that had overthrown the Khmer Rouge, and the Soviet Union didn't want to repeat a trial that they had, they said, held in 1979, but that was widely seen as a show trial.
So you had a freeze, if you will, in the legal system. It took the end of the Cold War before negotiations could bring about the creation of this tribunal.
RAY SUAREZ: Loung Ung, during those years where no bringing to justice was going on, did the trail to some perpetrators grow cold? Were people allowed to escape their crimes in the meanwhile?
LOUNG UNG, author: Yes, justice delayed has been -- is something that we need. I think the people who are being on trial, I mean, there's never going to be any justice for Cambodians, not for the 1-point million to 2 million Cambodians who were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.
But this is an opportunity, a historical moment for us to take this first process toward breaking this culture of impunity. So I'm really thrilled and in support of the tribunal that's taking place right now.
Cambodians follow trial closely
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me follow up. What do Cambodians on the street, the rank-and-file population of the country, make of these trials? Are they watching them, following them closely?
LOUNG UNG: I'm so sorry. I didn't hear that.
RAY SUAREZ: Oh, well, I was just asking whether regular Cambodians are following the trial closely.
LOUNG UNG: I was in Cambodia in February and sat in the pretrial hearing for Duch. And it was fascinating how many people actually followed this.
I was traveling the countryside, met many people, young and old, students, and, again, 50 percent of Cambodians are 20 and under who otherwise wouldn't know anything about what was going on there. And because of the tribunal, they actually came up to me, recognized me from pictures on my books, and started asking me questions about the tribunal.
And at the pretrial hearing, I was again really in awe to see that the courtroom of 430 people or so, filled with monks and students and men and women in business suits, and they were all paying attention and wanting to know what happened.
This is our opportunity. It's not only about the trial of a few people, but our opportunity to find out what happened to our families, what happened in Cambodia, and our opportunity to have our say, and to be heard, and to be believed.
Few Khmer Rouge officials are tried
RAY SUAREZ: Gregory Stanton, was a decision made, at least at first, to only go after the big perpetrators? Or will there be other trials down the line? You can't kill a million-and-a-half people without a lot of help.
GREGORY STANTON: That's certainly true. The law under which this tribunal was created actually provides only for trials of those most responsible for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. In other words, it only goes for the top.
And there are two reasons for that. The first is that, in a country where you have had so many people involved in the crimes, to go after everybody would simply tear the society apart again.
The second reason is that this was, in fact, a really Maoist-style top-down dictatorship, so that, in fact, orders really did come from the top, and so it is appropriate to try those people.
And I think that Loung Ung is absolutely right, that there's no good way that you can try everyone. And so but what is so important here is this trial will establish once and for all what happened, the history. It will end the denial that many of these leaders are still perpetrating. And, finally, it will provide an answer for many Cambodians why these leaders inflicted these terrible crimes upon them.
RAY SUAREZ: Loung Ung, do you agree with Gregory Stanton's analysis that you really only could try the big leaders of the regime and not the people who carried out those killings at ground level?
LOUNG UNG: You know, it's impossible to try, I think, all the people who are involved. Again, 1.7 million of Cambodians perished of starvations, disease, executions, and hard labors of a population of 7 million or so.
And a lot of people were involved. In Cambodia today, a country approximately the size of the state of Oklahoma, is littered with an estimate of 20,000 mass graves. And the majority of them were somebody's loved ones who were killed with a blunt instrument to the back of their heads.
So, so many people were involved. So many loved ones' lives were lost. And yet it's very difficult to pinpoint who gave what orders and, as Duch and the defendants, it's the same excuses they're giving us. "It wasn't us. We were just following orders." It was, "If we didn't follow orders, we would be killed."
And so it's disheartening that we couldn't try more people. But as a survivor, I am at least grateful that we are trying some people. And hopefully those some people will give us the information that we so sorely needed to move forward, to heal our nation, to heal our heart and our soul.
Survivors seek answers
RAY SUAREZ: Let's look a little closer at the man who called himself Duch during the Khmer Rouge regime. He's been held responsible for some 14,000 deaths at the particular prison he ran.
GREGORY STANTON: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Was he involved in the killings? Is he accused of being involved in the killings himself? Or was he basically running a place where all those killings occurred?
GREGORY STANTON: He has actually admitted to participating in the torture himself and was directly responsible for the killings.
One of the reasons that the trial of Duch is so significant is that he was a Christian converted after he was a Khmer Rouge. In other words, he's a born-again Christian who actually wants to confess his crimes, his sins.
And so he is actually going to spill the beans, if you will, on the other leaders. He's going to tell what they did, the orders they gave him, because he received orders directly, for instance, from Nuon Chea, brother number two, that were signed. And Duch can testify that he received those orders.
So the command responsibility for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, in fact, is going to be laid bare by this very first trial.
RAY SUAREZ: So Duch tells what he knows, Loung Ung. And what does a country, a small country like that, do with that information? Can a country like come to some sort of final conclusion about the war and move on when a man like this tells what he knows?
LOUNG UNG: Well, it's fascinating to me and Greg, you just mentioned that Duch actually is a born-again Christian and has said many times that his God will be his judge, and yet he is still, I think, not taking full responsibility, still saying the line he's been using a long time, which is he was just following orders.
I think for Cambodians, because 85 or so of Cambodians are Buddhist, we have begun to move forward. And for us, healing takes place not only at the tribunal, with the tribunal, but with each harvest seasons, with the birth of a new generation of Cambodians, with the country now becoming economically viable again.
But this for us, this just somehow may put the closure for us to find out what happened to our family members. And for us, it was just -- during the Khmer Rouge, we were so completely isolated.
We didn't know what happened to -- in a village a mere half-a-mile or a mile from us. I didn't know the soldiers were coming for my father with their guns and grenades and took him into the night until they arrived, even though they had been going to villages and taking other people's fathers.
And it's because we were completely locked down and we didn't know. And this hopefully will give us an opportunity to find out what actually happened.
RAY SUAREZ: Loung Ung joins us from Cleveland, Gregory Stanton here in Washington. Good to talk to you both.
GREGORY STANTON: Thank you.
LOUNG UNG: Thank you.