Cambodia: Echoes from the Killing Fields

Torture rack used at S-21, on display at Tuol Sleng museum. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Clad in a blue shirt under a cream jacket, Kaing Guak Eav sat back, seemingly relaxed to the point of boredom. The judge, prosecution and defense debated the finer points of the relationship between Cambodia's penal code and the tribunal set up to examine crimes committed under Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1978. Meanwhile, the man known as Comrade Duch, sitting alone two rows behind his legal team, punctuated an impassive stillness with the occasional bout of fidgety restlessness.

As head of the S-21 torture camp, Duch—pronounced "Doik"—oversaw the torture of around 16,000 prisoners at the former school, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Most of the detainees were later murdered at Choeung Ek, one of the country's thousands of mass graves or "Killing Fields," around 15 miles from Phnom Penh's city center. S-21 was only one of over 190 similar detention, torture and murder camps set up all over Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era.

Duch was not part of the Khmer Rouge leadership and is the only one of the five accused to have expressed remorse for his crimes, offering at one point to face a public stoning and to allow victims to visit him in jail. But he made a u-turn on the final day of his trial in November 2009, asking to be acquitted and freed, which left many wondering if his contrition was sincere.

After being sentenced to 35 years in prison last July, both defense and prosecution launched appeals, the former saying the sentence is too long, and the latter claiming an unwarranted leniency. In effect the sentence means that Duch will serve around 18 years, or roughly 11 hours jail time for each person killed at S-21. ?"We reiterate our request that the sentence be increased to something more appropriate to the crimes committed," said prosecution lawyer Chea Leang, speaking in Khmer.

The hybrid nature of the tribunal is reflected in the bilingual proceedings, with international lawyers and judges speaking in English, while Cambodians use Khmer. The 300 or so people in the public gallery wore headsets, listening to the translation in their preferred language, as security berated some of the high school students in the gallery for nodding off during the densely legalistic arguments.

Duch's defense says that the sentence should be reduced, due to time served already, and referred back to "mitigating circumstances" discussed during the previous trial. "Any reference to international courts such as Rwanda or Yugoslavia is not appropriate," said lawyer Kar Savuth, adding that "psychological evaluation shows that Duch can re-enter society."

Duch says that the crimes he committed and oversaw were carried out under duress from the Khmer Rouge leadership, a defense similar to that used by Nazis at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials. "Duch tried to isolate himself from the crimes at S-21," claimed the defense. "What would you or anyone have done in his shoes? It would be like trying to disobey orders from the SS."

At the Toul Sleng museum, meanwhile, a copy of a 1976 letter handwritten by Duch stands in one of the cells through which thousands passed to their deaths, upstairs from the torture implements used at the compound.

Exhorting the use of gruesome punishment at S-21, it signs off with "therefore, you Comrade can employ hot torture methods with force for long periods … even if it may cause death."

Lead prosecution lawyer Andrew Cayley said that the case ultimately comes down to the fact that Duch "is a man who got up every day for work, for over three years, and murdered over 12,000 people."

Only seven people are known to have survived S-21, where visitors can see gruesome photos of murdered prisoners taken by Vietnamese army photographers after the compound was liberated by troops sent in by Hanoi.

"That is what this is all about," Cayley concluded, after describing Duch as "selective and opportunistic" in his cooperation with the court, and that his case "did not meet the standards for mitigation."

Discussing the appeal, for which a verdict is expected in June, Khmer Rouge survivor Youk Chhang said that "if the sentence is reduced, it will be a slap in the face for the victims." However, he cautioned against any public anger, adding that "we must also respect the rule of law."

Sitting among a mountain of books and documents covering the history of Khmer Rouge rule, Chhang spoke at his office at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has contributed to gathering evidence against the Khmer Rouge.

Despite concerns about the Duch appeal, he says the "more important is Case No 2," referring to the impending trial of the four senior surviving Khmer Rouge top brass—"Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Thirith and Ieng Sary. They will come before the tribunal later this year.

Along with Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who died in 1998, the four are regarded as among the top decision-makers during the Communist reign of terror in Cambodia, which was ended by a Vietnamese military invasion in 1979. An estimated 2 million Cambodians—a quarter of the population—were killed by the Khmer Rouge, with an estimated 5 million of the country's present-day population of 15 million listed as survivors of the era.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy:

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