Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Revisiting the Killing Fields

The trial of the first Khmer Rouge leader by the Cambodia Tribunal leaves Cambodians with a mix of relief and frustration.

Luke Hunt

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, stood as Judge Nil Nonn read the charge sheet. Around him, Muslim Chams and Buddhist monks sat patiently with ordinary Cambodians, diplomats, aid workers and journalists. Among them were hundreds of victims—survivors of the Khmer Rouge—who along with millions more across the country waited anxiously for the verdict.

Late last month, a freshly-built courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh became the focus of justice in a nation craving admonishment of the Khmer Rouge and international recognition that atrocities committed here between April 1975 and January 1979 were indeed war crimes.

Inside the courtroom, Judge Nonn detailed charges that included murder, torture, extermination and crimes against humanity. As he rattled off the names of victims, whose relatives had featured prominently in court hearings, viewers in the public gallery became fidgety, while outside hundreds sat on the muddy lawns listening intently to public address systems.

The gathered crowds were a scene repeated in thousands of villages across the country, from the northern reaches of the Mekong Delta to its coastal towns in the south. Local TV and radio networks had been ordered to broadcast the verdict in Case 001, the first international effort to prosecute the surviving ultra-Maoists leaders, live from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC).

The public’s anxiety had manifested itself since closing arguments seven months earlier when Duch, the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the ECCC, had thrown a last minute spanner into the legal works and changed his plea of no contest to not guilty. He’d also sacked his French lawyer Francois Roux and demanded a replacement from the only country to recognise Pol Pot during his time in power—China.

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That Duch had overseen ghastly ritual torture and the deaths of thousands at the S-21 prison seemed undeniable, but the Christian convert and former mathematics teacher had created an avenue for acquittal and Cambodians are used to fearing the worst.

So when Nonn finally released the guilty verdict, reached by three Cambodian and two international judges, the sense of relief was palpable. Cheers and a few tears followed as people hugged and shook hands. Commonsense and a touch of United Nations justice had prevailed.

Nonn sentenced Duch to 35 years in jail minus 11 years for time already served. A further five years was also taken off because six of those years in prison were spent in illegal incarceration. On this reading, Duch has only 19 years left to serveand, under standard sentencing procedures, Duch could see one-third of his 35-year term removed for good behavior.

One woman at the court said Duch should be killed, fried and his body dismembered to be eaten by his victims. A Cambodian newspaper publisher, an American who lives abroad, wrote a letter to their own paper comparing the Khmer Rouge with the Nazis and the holocaust, and fumed that Pol Pot’s lieutenants should hang (Cambodia abolished the death penalty in 1993).

The Survivors

The ECCC had been given the names of more than 12,000 men, women and children who were processed at S-21—an abandoned high school in suburban Tuol Sleng—tortured, then ferried to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. There they were bludgeoned to death with an iron bar to the nape of the neck and buried in mass graves.

Duch admitted that more than the 12,000 named had perished. But the widely accepted figure is 16,000 and some experts believe as many as 25,000 people were killed. Duch ran S-21 and S-24, another similar facility, based on a prototype called M-13 that he had built in 1971 while the Khmer Rouge were still battling the US-backed Lon Nol forces. About 300 people died in M-13, near Omlaing, about 80 kilometres west of Phnom Penh.

From behind a wall of bullet-proof glass, Duch told the court that M-13 was designed to ‘detain, to torture and to smash, that is to kill’and according to evidence from Chan Voeun it was here that Duch was ‘happy like a madman’ while torturing prisoners.

As an M-13 employee, Voeun had watched Duch hang a woman from a tree, strip-off her shirt and burn her breasts with a lit kerosene rag.

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In all, 196 death camps were built around the country based on the S-21 and M-13 models after Pol Pot seized the capital in 1975. Less than a handful of S-21 inmates are alive today.

‘I’m not the court, but I want Duch to be jailed for life,’ says one survivor, Bou Meng. ‘He doesn’t deserve a reduced sentence because he has committed very serious crimes. Whoever reduces his sentence should go to jail instead of him.’

Vann Nath, a 65-year-old stillquietly dealing with health issues that can be traced back to his time in S-21, is now a tireless worker at conferences and workshopsaimed at helping Cambodia cope with Pol Pot’s legacy and recuperate from more than three decades of war.

Vann Nath’s artistic abilities are what saved him. A gifted painter, he was taken from his cell and told to paint portraits of Khmer Rouge leaders. And although a diminutive figure in size, he seems to tower among others for his candor and decency. On the verdict he was gracious.

‘For justice, it’s up to court to deliver,’he says. ‘It’s like a life sentence for him because Duch is…old already.’

‘What we have suffered is too great to describe, it’s difficult for us to reconcile, but we must forgive,’ he says, adding in regards to his friends and relatives who did not survive: ‘We can’t demand something that’s already lost, so let it go.’

Duch’s sentencing was, infact, in keeping with international laws and any leniency was on this basis justified given that the evidence he has provided will be used in Case 002 to prosecute Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, the former minister for social affairs Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan, a former head of state.

All four were on the Khmer Rouge central and standing committees that wrote and initiated government policy.

The Numbers Game

In urging the court to jail Duch for 40 years, after taking into consideration the 10 years already served, co-prosecutor William Smith from Australia said his crimes against humanity were comparable with those committed in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

Strangely, this was also a point taken up by the defense, for a different purpose. Before he was sacked, Roux compared his client’s crimes with those committed by Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production for Adolf Hitler and Dragan Obrenovic.Obrenovic, the Bosnian Serb army brigade commander, was tried for war crimes in connection with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during which 8000 men and boys were killed.

Roux won few fans with his final arguments.

‘I apologise in advance to the victims for what I am about to say,’Roux said. He then noted that the total number of deaths under Duch’s stewardship was less than one percent of those who perished across the country at that time.

Certainly, the inhumanity and damage inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on a nation-wide scale was breathtaking. Up to two million people—or about quarter of Cambodia’s population—died through murder, starvation and illnesses related to forced labor and malnutrition during the years of its regime.

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The cities were emptied and Cambodia’s cultural life was abandoned for Pol Pot’s vision of an agrarian utopia. Unfortunately, there was little room for ethnic Vietnamese, Muslim Chams and other minorities who were singled out for extermination. Intellectuals were targeted as enemies of the people and sometimes branded as such simply because they wore glasses. Those with dark skin were favoured as communist approved peasants because their tone represented time under the sun and in the paddy fields.

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia ended Pol Pot’s rule in 1979 and with it one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century (although another two decades of conflict based on Cold War animosities and local factions continued until 1998).

So Roux’s mathematics were correct. The death rate at S-21 was much lower than what was being experienced elsewhere in the country. However, the numbers game is also dangerous because it underestimates the extent of barbarity that was inflicted at S-21 under Duch’s stewardship.

Evidence offered in case 001 included testimonies from the victims, S-21 guards and relatives of the dead. They revealed the existence of a special team of five female interrogators to deal with women prisoners, and that Duch’s preferred methods of torture were whips and electric shocks, as these were simpler than water boarding and less likely to kill the victim at an ‘inconvenient’time.

Still, water boarding was common, as was asphyxiation, meals were rare and beatings common. Prisoners were left chained to rotting corpses for days at time. Operations were performed on inmates without anesthetic and at times blood was drained for use in transfusions elsewhere.

Death was the only relief, provided after a prisoner had signed off on a forced confession. About 5000 confessions were eventually obtained. Perversely, lawyers for Ieng Thirith have indicated they will argue that such confessions are inadmissible as evidence in court because they were obtained under duress, violating the victims’ human rights.

Cheam Soeu, a former guard at S-21, told how four Westerners—an Australian, an American a New Zealander and a Briton—were brought there and eventually killed.

He says one was taken outside the jail by three guards, told to sit down, a tire was placed over him and he was set a light. Cheam Soeu could not say which Westerner had died.

Kerry Hamill was one of the Westerners killed after his yacht was blown off course and into Cambodian waters in 1978. In a powerful testimony, his brother slowly read a victim impact statement to the trial and wept. He told Duch that he had ruined his family and that his parents had learned of their son’s death two months later from a newspaper report.

‘At times, I have imagined you shackled, starved, whipped and clubbed, viciously. I have imagined your scrotum electrified, being forced to eat your own faeces, being nearly drowned and having your throat cut,’ Hamill said, referring to some of the horrors faced by prisoners.

Duch eventually expanded S-21 to implement a purge of Khmer Rouge no longer considered pure—dubbed ‘evil eating evil’ by some.

But the extent of Duch’scrimes was probably best captured by a Vietnamese cameraman who entered Toul Sleng with Hanoi’s invasion in late 1978.

The grisly footage includes decapitated bodies chained to their beds, footage ruled inadmissible by judges after it was challenged by the defence for its authenticity.

But Greg Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, has no doubts it was real.

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‘It makes Nazi death camps look tame,’ he says. ‘It’s black and white, silent, about ten minutes. It shows bodies chained to beds…Bodies were shackled at the ankles and disemboweled. It’s the most horrible thing on earth.’

‘Shocking and Heinous’

Judge Nonn described the crimes as ‘shocking and heinous’ but Duch sought to mitigate his involvement with limited remorse and by emphasizing his role as just a cog in a much bigger machine. He corroborated earlier claims over chains of command made by Ieng Thirith that ultimate responsibility for S-21 lay with Nuon Chea.

‘It's really important, in the telling of history, what happened more than 30 years ago,’ says Khmer American author and lawyer, Theary Seng. ‘The Khmer Rouge tribunal is shedding light on this very, very dark period.’

She saysDuch's testimony surrounding M-13 death as well as his naming of names had left a powerful and poignant mark on the tribunal.

‘Even for those of us who have been following the tribunal since its establishment, who have been reading up on the tribunal, on the history of the Khmer Rouge, we’ve found surprising pieces of information we didn’t know existed before,’she says.

The other four Khmer Rouge leaders currently in detention have said they will plead not guilty to charges of murder, torture and crimes against humanity. They won’t cooperate,and according to Seng, Duch’s trial will be seen as a cakewalk when compared with what’s to come once Case 002 gets underway in early 2011.

This is where the court’s sentencing—while upsetting many over the short term—is important for two reasons. First, time off for good behavior and remorse could be used as an inducement to convince any of the four to testify against the others.

Second, Duch still has the option of appealing. If he does, this could complicate Case 002 with evidence that was once taken as read being thrown open and questioned again as Duch seeks to overturn the previous ruling.

If Duch accepts his maximum 19 years left to serve then prosecutors can expect a smoother ride. If Duch rejects this and appeals as his lawyer says he intends to, then he risks receiving a much harsher sentence, one that would probably guarantee his last days will be spent behind bars regardless of how long he lives.

Given the ‘Hang ‘em High’ climate in some quarters of Phnom Penh, Duch should weigh his options very carefully.