- Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer by Alexander Laban Hinton, and: The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia by Alexander Laban Hinton
In the summer of 1979 I was asked to go to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to give an opinion as an expert witness on genocide at the upcoming trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, leaders of the Khmer Rouge government that had recently been displaced in Cambodia. This proceeding stood to be the first time the crime defined in the Genocide Convention of 1949 would be prosecuted in a court of law. The Khmer Rouge, which took power in Cambodia in 1975, still held a small sector of Cambodia, from which it was waging a guerrilla war against the new government, which was made up of dissident elements within the Khmer Rouge who had revolted against it, backed by the Army of Vietnam.
The trial bore a certain aspect of unreality since Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were being tried in absentia, the pair being beyond the reach of the new Cambodian authorities. Testimony at the trial, however, was compelling. Witness after witness gave horrifying accounts of atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge. I gave the court my analysis of how the Genocide Convention applied, and the Court entered a conviction for genocide.
Following the conviction, the guerrilla war in Cambodia ground on. The impact of the trial was hard to identify. At the time, the term “transitional justice” was yet to be coined. There was little literature on what purpose criminal trials serve in the aftermath of atrocities.
Two books by the anthropologist Alexander Laban Hinton suggest that this ambiguity still hangs over post-conflict criminal trials. Hinton’s books deal with the same atrocities recounted by the witnesses at the 1979 trial. The books cover ongoing trials of Khmer Rouge figures in Phnom Penh before a special court set up jointly by the Government of Cambodia and the United Nations. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are staffed by judges appointed by Cambodia’s Supreme Council of the Magistracy, some of them being nominated internally in Cambodia, while others are nominated by the Secretary General of the United Nations. The prosecution team similarly is made up of both Cambodian and internationally nominated lawyers.
The first of Hinton’s two books, published in 2016, is titled Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer. It covers the 2009 to 2010 trial and conviction of a Khmer Rouge official who operated an interrogation center in Phnom Penh in which thousands of prisoners were tortured and summarily executed. Hinton’s second book, published in 2018 as a follow-up volume, is titled The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia. It deals with the Extraordinary Chambers proceedings more generally.
Hinton’s main aim in Man or Monster? is to put a human face on a person charged with horrendous crimes. Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, ran the Khmer Rouge’s principal interrogation center. Most of the prisoners were Khmer Rouge officials suspected of internal subversion. In interrogations, Duch and his subordinates were not looking for a confession that would be used in a court as there were no courts in Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Instead, the interrogation was aimed at eliciting information about the supposed subversion and gaining the names of others who might have been [End Page 236] involved. Confessions preceded not a trial, but execution.
Hinton seeks to understand Duch as the official in charge of the interrogation center. Hinton tells the story largely through the courtroom testimony of Duch himself. Duch was more than willing to talk at length in court about his background and about the ideological journey that led him to his position. A school teacher before joining the Khmer Rouge, Duch was comfortable before a courtroom audience. He went into great detail explaining the Khmer Rouge philosophy...