Seeking a nation’s forgiveness

Does a Khmer Rouge leader, even a penitent one, deserve mercy?
Chris Tenove

When the Khmer Rouge forces were routed from Phnom Penh in January 1979, they left behind a ruined and vacant city. Following the odour of decomposing bodies, Cambodian and Vietnamese liberators discovered a high school surrounded by barbed wire fences. Inside they found 14 prisoners whose throats had been cut. Other rooms contained grisly evidence of torture: whips, lengths of chain, thousands of written confessions, photographs of beaten and terrified men and women. Scrawled across documents were orders from the prison’s commandant. On one interrogation record, he wrote, “beat until he tells everything.” Beside a list of names: “kill every last one.”

This was S-21 prison, and last week that commandant made a final appearance in court before a panel of crimson-robed judges, who will issue their verdict in early 2010. Kaing Guek Eav, known by his revolutionary name, “Duch,” is the first defendant at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a United Nations-backed tribunal. His trial has captivated Cambodians. Broadcast live on television, it’s debated at dinner tables and on radio programs. Each day, hundreds of Cambodians travel to Phnom Penh to attend in person, many leaving their villages in the middle of the night for the long bus ride. “I want to go to the trial to see what an evil person looks like,” an elderly woman told me on the eve of her journey. “I want to see his real face.”

Since the trial began in March, Cambodians have heard chilling testimony about torture techniques and bizarre medical experiments. But they have also been profoundly challenged by Duch’s defence. Duch was not an evil man, his lawyers argue, but a flawed one. Experts have testified he is now capable of compassion and ready to be reintegrated into society. Duch himself has suggested something many Cambodians would have considered preposterous: that they forgive him. He set the tone of the trial from his first statement. “I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the tortures and execution of the people there,” he declared on March 31. He apologized to the victims and their families, and to all survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, before concluding, “I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness.”

That’s not the tack taken by the four other Khmer Rouge leaders now detained at the ECCC. Their trials likely won’t begin for more than a year, but in public statements they have denied or downplayed their culpability. Nuon Chea, second-in-command to Pol Pot, told Maclean’s in 2007 that in court he would challenge accusations against him. He suggested he would try to rehabilitate his regime’s image—despite estimates that up to two million Cambodians died during Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979.

Duch held a lower position in the government than the others, but he is the most senior Khmer Rouge official to admit guilt. He has also provided information to victims’ families and co-operated with the ECCC’s investigators. François Roux, Duch’s defence counsel, believes his client’s conduct will help Cambodians achieve truth and national reconciliation. “It has not been easy,” says Roux, “but from the beginning, he has expressed remorse and accepted responsibility.”

Duch’s guilty plea has shifted the emphasis of the trial. The most difficult questions are not about what happened inside the prison walls, but what was going on in the mind of the defendant. Why did he do what he did? Was it because of a moral or psychological fault? Or could other “normal” Cambodians have done the same?

These questions could shed light on one of the most troubling aspects of the Khmer Rouge era. The leaders instituted disastrous policies, but they did not murder one quarter of the population with their own hands. Thousands of Cambodians separated children from their families, withheld medical treatment from the ill, and tortured people who were innocent of any crime. Is Duch any different from them? And if there are many Duchs alive in Cambodia today, can they, too, be reformed and reintegrated into society?

Since the trial began, Chum Mey has studied Duch from across the courtroom. Mey, 79, is one of a dozen survivors of S-21, where perhaps 15,000 others died. Interrogators ripped off his toenails and applied electric shocks to his eardrums. Like other inmates, he was forced to confess to being a spy. I spoke with him on the grounds of S-21, which has become the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We walked through the cinder-block cubicles where he was once shackled. Mey is amiable and chatty, but insistent that people hear his story. He lost his wife and son during Khmer Rouge rule, and he recounts his ordeals with an air of perpetual bewilderment. How could this have happened?

Mey was initially impressed by Duch’s apologies. But after months spent listening to the defendant, he has become suspicious. He worries Duch’s public remorse is crafted to win a lighter sentence. “Duch is very cunning,” Mey says, brow knit in concern. “He confesses to the big picture, but then denies what he has done himself.”

Like Mey, I have spent days watching Duch in court, searching for clues. At 67, Duch is tiny and respectable-looking, with neatly groomed salt-and-pepper hair and crisply laundered dress shirts. He responds politely to questions from judges, who peer down at him over their laptop computers. Sometimes he glances through the glass wall that separates the courtroom from the viewing gallery where hundreds of Cambodians sit, along with a smattering of foreign observers. He seems pleased to see us watching.

For the past two years, Duch has been confined to the ECCC’s detention centre, with little to do besides study the documents related to his case. “He knows the files better than anyone else in the courtroom,” a member of the prosecution team admitted to me. “His ability to call up documents from memory is chilling.” Duch clearly takes pleasure from his mastery of the files. If a witness or lawyer makes a mistake, Duch will correct their errors in his dry schoolteacher’s voice. While he takes responsibility for the overall criminality of S-21, he strongly challenges witnesses who allege he tortured prisoners himself or was present at their executions.

“Duch lives in a contradiction,” says Judy Ledgerwood, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University. “I think he feels some genuine remorse, but he also wants the story to be told in a way that doesn’t make him look so bad. To do that he needs to make some changes.” Ledgerwood once spent six months working in the S-21 archives, where she came to recognize Duch’s handwriting. “He was not a cog in the machine,” she argues. “He stood there and gave the orders—not to have 10 or 15 people killed, but thousands.”

To help make sense of the puzzle that is Duch, judges ordered an assessment by two psychological experts. They diagnosed him as free of psychiatric illness, and instead described an ideologue who put the revolution ahead of individual lives. He was meticulous and hard-working, proud of doing a good job, with no empathy for those who suffered. While he ordered the executions of thousands, he found time to get married, father two children, and receive visits from his parents.

Despite this damning portrait of Duch as commandant of S-21, the psychologists claim Duch today is a changed person. He has more empathy for victims. On several occasions he has wept publicly. The experts described his mental life as a battlefield where different elements, including Khmer Rouge teachings, continue to fight for control. That war isn’t over. Nevertheless, they have concluded Duch could be reintegrated into society.

Any story of Duch’s transformation has to include his conversion to Christianity in 1996, when he was living under a pseudonym in a remote village. (He was discovered in 1999 and put in a military jail.) Duch found in Christianity a powerful religion—it had defeated Communism in countries like Poland—that offered him a new doctrine and a new community. Equally importantly, it offered the possibility of divine forgiveness for his sins. In this deeply Buddhist country, many Cambodians look at his conversion with great skepticism. “In Buddhism you pay the price for what you’ve done,” explains professor Ledgerwood. “According to Buddhism, Duch is stuck. He’s going to languish for an eternity, or at least for many life cycles, in a lower level of hell somewhere.”

The judges at the ECCC aren’t able to hand out that kind of sentence. They can, however, decide whether or not Duch will spend the rest of this life in prison. The prosecution has asked that he get 40 years. The defence seeks lighter punishment, as he has co-operated, pled guilty, and already been in jail for 10 years. It’s still possible that one day Duch could walk free. In deciding whether or not he should, judges face the questions that challenge Cambodians who watch the trial. Can a man like Duch change? And can any amount of penance win a reprieve for someone who showed no mercy to his victims in the past?