Cambodia puts Khmer Rouge on trial. First defendant is "Comrade Duch"
Proceedings begin on February 17 against the commander of the S-21 prison. More than 17,000 Cambodians died there between 1975 and 1979. The main witness is one of the seven survivors of the massacre: in his paintings, he has depicted the atrocities he witnessed. It is the first trial against figures of the regime, but the outcome is unclear.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - On February 17 in Cambodia, the first trial against a member of the Khmer Rouge will begin. On trial is Kaing Guek Eay, better known as "Comrade Duch," one of the five leaders of the old regime now in prison and awaiting judgment. One of the main witnesses will be Vann Nath, one of the seven survivors of the S-21 prison (the infamous Security Prison 21, renamed Tuol Sleng), where more than 17,000 people died between 1975 and 1979. Only three of the seven survivors are still alive.

"Comrade Duch," 66, will have to answer to charges of "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." He is accused of commanding the S-21 in the period from 1975-1979, presiding over all sorts of crimes: torture, rape, and more than one hundred murders a day. It is the first trial ever against a Khmer Rouge leader, and will be held at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, created and maintained by the United Nations, and entrusted with the task of trying crimes committed by the followers of Pol Pot during the 1970's.

The story of "Comrade Duch" is linked, for better and for worse, to the fate of Vann Nath, whose life inspired a film about the massacres carried out by the Khmer Rouge; now, for the first time, his testimony will be heard in a courtroom, during the trial against his tormentor. Nath still remembers clearly that day in April of 1977, when he was arrested by a Khmer Rouge squad, tied up, and shoved onto an ox cart, without being given a chance to say goodbye to his wife and two children. They would never meet again, because his family was among the victims of the murderous insanity of the "revolutionaries." He is anxious to see the beginning of the trial, but has no desire for revenge: "I was angry. But my angry period has passed. This is the period for finding solutions."

Vann Nath was born in 1946 in Battambang, in the northwest part of Cambodia. He is still one of the country's most important artists today, and it is thanks to this "gift" that he was able to survive the terrible years in prison. He was chosen by "Comrade Duch" as the artist to paint portraits and create sculptures of Pol Pot. In 1979, following the invasion of the Vietnamese army and the fall of the regime, he was able to escape the S-21; when the secret prison was turned back into a museum of "commemoration," he again passed through the doors of the prison to work on its reconstruction and to testify in first person to the massacres and torture. Through his paintings (in the photo), the artist has depicted the scenes that he witnessed; today, they are hanging on the walls of the prison-museum.

In 2010, four other leading figures of the regime are scheduled to go on trial. They are: Khieu Samphan, 77, former head of state; Ieng Sary, 83, foreign minister; Ieng Thirith, 76, Sary's wife and minister for social affairs; Nuon Chea, 82, an ideologue of the regime and nicknamed "Brother No 2." Pol Pot, the bloody dictator known as "Brother No. 1," died on April 15, 1998, without ever having to answer for the atrocities he committed.

The court responsible for judging crimes in Cambodia was created in May of 2006, after years of negotiations between Phnom Penh and the United Nations, which brought into doubt the government's intention of allowing the court to operate. The Supreme Council of the magistrature has approved the appointment of 17 Cambodian judges, and 13 from other countries. In 2008, the special tribunal faced a severe financial crisis: the original funding of 56 million dollars for the first three years turned out to be insufficient, because costs went up with the many preliminary hearings called by the judges. The danger still remains that all of the effort exerted so far to put the regime's leaders behind bars will be in vain.

Cambodia's drama remains an open wound in the country: according to a recent survey, 80% of people feel that they are "victims of crimes" committed by the Khmer Rouge, although some of them - especially second-level representatives, and leaders of the old regime - still occupy an active role in the country's political life. They have no interest in carrying out investigations over past crimes, for the sake of coexistence, out of fear, or because they are convinced adherents of the revolutionary folly of Pol Pot, who did not hesitate to exterminate almost two million people for the sake of creating "the new man" in Cambodia. The defendants are also of advanced age: some of them are seriously ill, and there is a concrete risk that they will not live to see the end of the trial.

This adds insult to injury for those who, like Vann Nath, are not looking for revenge, but only for justice, in the name of a quarter of the Cambodian people. "What happened cannot be restored. I just want justice," he concludes. "Justice for me is having the perpetrators admit their guilt. I hope that the judges can find justice for us."