Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Duch: the teacher who made sacrifices for the revolution, and the cadre who obeyed for fear of dying

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 06/04/2009: Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, explaining his allegiance to the Communist Party of Kampuchea during the trial at the ECCC.
©John Vink/ Magnum


By Stéphanie Gée

On April 6th, the fourth day of the substantive trial of Duch - the former director of the S-21 detention centre where more than 15,000 prisoners died - debates were about the M-13 security centre of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), which Duch directed before his appointment to the newly-created S-21 centre in 1975. Facts linked to the centre do not come under the jurisdiction of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) since they occurred outside of the court’s mandate, before 1975. This short historical reminder aimed at shedding some light on the context in which S-21 came about, its structure and the way it worked, and also at clarifying the character of the sprightly sixty-six year-old. The hearing was seriously affected by translation issues.

The innovation of international criminal courts, where Common Law usually applies, invited itself at the ECCC: the defendant was subjected to a cross-examination before the ECCC, a process which is usually proper to the Civil Law system. Indeed, Duch was questioned by the court and for the M-13 dossier, it is French Judge Jean-Marc Lavergne who conducted the interrogation with pertinence.

Revolutionary commitment
Duch’s interest in the Marxist-Leninist revolution dates back to 1964, he explained, i.e. when he was a student at the National Institute of Pedagogy, where two of his teachers aroused his interest in politics. “My commitment was whole-hearted. I sacrifice everything”: a great part of his salary and even regular visits to his parents... Late 1967, after attending a training course provided by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), he was made to swear allegiance to the party, in order “to serve the party and the people in the best way, all his life, and to sacrifice everything” for the revolutionary cause. A few weeks later, he was arrested by Prince Sihanouk’s judicial police for “having endangered the security of the state”, with the collaboration of a foreign power. He was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour and was released on April 3rd 1970 thanks to General Lon Nol’s coup, which resulted in the release of all political prisoners.

Among the main reasons which led Duch into revolutionary struggle, as he summed it up, there was a fierce will to defend the country and free the people, who were “then considered as oppressed”. “I was not afraid of being far away from my relatives, being incarcerated or dying and serving the revolution”, he said, and added that this spirit of sacrifice was “constantly” there with him. Yet, he later said he quickly decided to obey orders for fear of dying and claimed he was aware of the criminal nature of what was committed...

For the former S-21 supervisor, there is absolutely no doubt that “if Richard Nixon had not helped Lon Nol in his coup and if the Khmer Rouge had not cooperated with Prince Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge would not have been able to lead their insurrection”. Thanks to Prince Sihanouk who urged Cambodians to go underground [after being toppled by Lon Nol], Khmer Rouge forces were able to grow stronger in 1970.” In an account of the Khmer Rouge movement as he knew it back then, Duch cleared the name of Khieu Samphan by saying that the latter was but a “simple outward image, and Pol Pot was the one who had been controlling the army from the very beginning”.

Choosing his revolutionary name
“We were asked [when they joined the ranks of the CPK] to change our names.” On top of that, Duch points out that his name – Kaing Guek Eav – was Chinese. But the Khmer Rouge rule was to bear a Khmer name. “I thought about Duch, the name of a very skilful sculptor whom my grandmother knew [...]. It was also the name of a student who used to hold his head high in pride and read out very clearly – he was mentioned in the first text of a primary school learning book. I liked that name, so I chose that one”.

Judge Lavergne corrects him: “The name then referred to a student who was particularly obedient and respectful, who was always ready to learn and carry out orders?” “Yes”, Duch says. But I wanted to be that well-disciplined boy who respected teachers and did good actions.”

A cadre who obeyed for fear of consequences?
Duch thought that once the revolution would be triumphant, he would be allowed to teach. “I did not expect to do what I was going to do!” The accused, who first proved his worth in the Khmer Rouge ranks as a political instructor for the army, admits he used to loathe his function at the M-13 centre. “I was not able to avoid that task. [...] It is natural that when a superior gives instructions, his subordinates obey!”

In an appendix added to his interrogation by co-Investigating Judges, Duch wrote a paragraph entitled “the influence of terror on me”. In it, he says he hated his “police work”. He cast aside the suicide option and that of facing his superiors. In order to soothe his internal conflict and find comfort, he used to recite every night a French poem and made sure he sought the truth in the confessions he got from prisoners, he says in the note. “I could not do anything else than carrying out this mission at the centre. Therefore I did not consider any other alternative than obeying orders so as to survive! [...] I was afraid of dying!” He then reported, looking ill-at-ease, that children had already started to appear at M-13 among ranks of prisoners.

When Judge Lavergne asked him to make a list of the particular qualities which the Party appreciated in him to the point of entrusting him with the direction of security centres, Duch mentioned “sincerity towards the party”, and the “meticulous” side of him regarding work. “For all my life, when I did something, I did it well!” Just like on that fourth day of trial: without the shadow of a doubt, he collaborates with the court. Most of the time, his eyes are in line with the camera and he suits the action to the word whenever he needs to. He modulates the intonations of his voice to make his account livelier. His head nods and he frowns. He answers everything and enumerates dates, places and names with the same strictness a teacher would show.

M-13, a prelude to S-21
After public apologies to S-21 victims the week before, Duch reiterated his request, but this time before M-13 victims. Were detainees subjected to ill-treatment? “They said that torture was inevitable” during interrogations, he says. The security centre was originally created to fight spies and protect the zone “liberated” by the Khmer Rouge. Duch admits that conditions of detention were “inhuman”. Medication was non-existent, food shares became scarcer in 1974 and prisoners were only given “rice dust” – “We kept them alive for interrogations”- and detainees were permanently chained to iron bars. Parallels with S-21 grip anyone who listens to descriptions. Judge Lavergne tried to emphasise this through his questions to the defendant.

As a background to the hearing, Duch’s answers reveal that right before they seized power, the Khmer Rouge were shaken in their ranks by internal conflicts and that obviously, all members did not necessarily approve of their policy.

Duch’s interrogation will continue on Tuesday April 7, after which Civil Parties, witnesses and experts will be heard before the Trial Chamber regarding the M-13 issue.

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