Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Quiet Evil

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

March 31, 2009

It is rare to be in the presence of evil, and there is very little doubt that Kaing Guek Eav is the embodiment of evil. He has confessed to crimes so ghastly that it is difficult to use mere words to define them. Yet words were the focus on the first day of Kaing Guek Eav's (alias Duch) substantive trial.

The courtroom of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is part judicial forum, part theater. The participants are sequestered behind an enormous wood and glass wall, a gleaming curve that allows the audience to view the proceedings, as well as see themselves reflected. The "audience" (and the people in the seats are referred to with that word) enters the auditorium/courtroom after passing through a number of security checkpoints. The line to get in is not long, and the guards are well-trained enough to keep the process brief. Passing through the first of two metal detectors, visitors are shunted down a long fenced corridor to the main court building. Journalists queue outside the fence, snapping pictures of whoever happens to be walking past.

The court building feels as much like a high school as it does a court. Concrete stairwells fixed with iron railings lead to yet another metal detector, where cameras, cell phones, and candy and gum packages that were missed at the initial screenings are collected on a table and kept like a bizarre court concession stand.

There are many chairs on the "stage", though far more on the prosecution side of the room. Attorneys, civil parties, and other court staff filter in and take their seats, variously putting on their robes of black or purple, and their white cravats. As they enter, the audience watches them like animals in a cage while consulting a printed roster of who is who behind the glass shield.

A bell sounds, the audience rises silently, and the seven judges file into the court. Everyone puts on their headphones and prepares to listen. The president, Judge Nil Nonn asks that Duch be brought to the dock by his jailers. The audience is rapt as the slight man with large ears and clean white shirt steps gingerly around his lawyers and sits in the appointed chair. The president directs biographical questions to him, where are you from, are your parents alive, what names have you used during your life, and Duch answers in a low gravelly voice. There is a tense feeling that this is all new and revelatory, though the information is already known and the process a formality.

The president informs the audience that the greffiers will read paragraphs 10 through 162 of the closing order which lay out the factual analysis of the charges against Duch. A greffier begins speaking, and the audience settles in to hear what Duch is accused of doing.

Listening to simultaneous translation takes some practice. Part of you wants to listen to the loudest voice in the room, but unfortunately, that voice is not always speaking a language you understand. So you focus instead on the voice in your headphones, a halting, careful English. The system is not perfect. The interpreters have the ability to control the flow of proceedings, and do so occasionally, stopping the judicial activities as a technical glitch is remedied.

The voice of the greffier is telling you terrible things. Things you can hardly believe are true, things you wish weren't true. Yet Duch has confessed to a great deal of what he is being accused of. He disputes only small details: that he intended this, that he knew about that, but not the overall thrust of the charges.

Throughout the morning, Duch barely raises his head. He has produced a pair of glasses and is reading the closing order along with the greffier. His movements are small and precise, nothing that would excite the burly guards seated directly behind him.

At noon, the court breaks for an hour and a half, with only half of the closing order read. The audience is listless and disturbed: two hours of death and misery can do that.

In the afternoon, Duch returns to the court, and the process continues. The greffier continues to read, and the audience is anxious that the trial move on, that the opening statements occur. Again, Duch is impassive, turning over pages and rarely looking up. Finally, the closing order has been read, and Duch's defense lawyer, Francois Roux, stands up to speak. He asks the court that since one hundred and fifty paragraphs of damning material have just been read to the court, that the ten paragraphs which follow, paragraphs which he claims are exculpatory, be read. The court adjourns for a half hour to deliberate, and upon returning, rejects his request. There is a legal basis for their decision, but it was in no way a foregone conclusion.

The prosecution is asked if they would like to make their preliminary opening statements, and the Cambodian Co-Prosecutor, noting the hour of the day (3pm) and the anticipated length of the opening statements (two hours) asks that the opening be conducted the following morning. A brief conference on the bench yields an agreement to adjourn for the day, which the rustling of the audience indicates may be an unpopular decision. This audience came to hear trial proceedings, not to hear a publicly available document read aloud.

Duch exits the courtroom quietly, and a moment after he disappears it is hard to remember he was there at all. His is not a large presence. If left alone with him under different circumstances it would be possible to forget he was there at all. Yet it is impossible to forget the words that describe what he has done. It is impossible to ignore the gravity of his crimes. Tomorrow, and the next day and the next, he will enter and leave the courtroom in his quiet way, and stand trial for some of the worst atrocities ever committed against fellow human beings. And we will watch.