Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 24/06/2009: International co-Prosecutor Robert Petit explained in a press conference the reasons for his resignation and the challenges awaiting the tribunal (see textbox)
By Stéphanie Gée
Wednesday June 24th, debates focused on the creation and functioning of the re-education camp of Prey Sar, also referred to as “S-24”, placed under the authority of S-21 similarly to the execution site of Choeung Ek and also located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. During the hearing, the judges repeatedly went back over Duch’s answers, which were at times rather confused and often contradictory, to try and sketch a picture of what was a re-education camp only in name.
“If documents prove it, then I will not deny it”
S-24 was established shortly after the “victory” of April 17th 1975, notably in the perimeter of the Prey Sar prison – where Duch was detained under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of Norodom Sihanouk – which was not used to this effect under the Khmer Rouge. Why? “Because there was no water,” Duch indicated. The main function of the camp – placed under the direction of comrade Huy, who was accountable to the director of S-21, meaning Nath, then Duch – was to reform and re-educate combatants. The accused recognised those who entered S-24 lost all their rights and later evoked the image of a “prison without walls.”
“No one from the provinces came to Prey Sar. Those sent to Prey Sar essentially came from the central army, I believe.” Yet, president Nil Nonn observed, “documents found proved that S-21 staff members and their relatives were sent to S-24…” “If documents prove it, then I will not deny it. Maybe. I do not remember…”, Duch said without dithering.
“So, are you backtracking here from what you said?”
The "components" of S-24, as Duch called them, were assigned to work to produce rice, grow vegetables, build dykes, dig canals, etc, the accused listed, in order to provide food to S-21 and Angkar. If one day of rest was scheduled every ten days, “later, everybody, including the cadres such as myself, had to work everyday.” Duch did not believe interrogations and torture sessions were carried out in S-24 because he simply had not authorised it. The judge then confronted him to testimonies reporting the practice of electroshocks, as a witness claimed he saw his colleagues return from Prey Sar “with their head shaved and their skin inflamed by the electric shocks” received. “Yet, you had not contested this fact in an agreement with the co-Prosecutors, which is repeated in the Closing Order. So, are you backtracking here from what you said?”
The contradiction did not disturb Duch. “There may have been interrogations but that was not something I decided. Maybe it was an initiative from Huy […]. As for the electroshocks, I do not believe they were used because there were few generators in S-24. In any case, no interrogation report from S-24 was ever sent to me…” Confusion then ensued, and continued all throughout the hearing without reaching any clear conclusions, regarding the number of individuals who were in S-24. Duch seemed to refer to a total of just over a hundred people. Nil Nonn corrected him. The uncontested facts, he said, included the acknowledgment by the accused that at least 571 people – S-24 staff members and detainees – ended up in S-24, on the basis of lists that were recovered. “I do not contest this figure then,” Duch conceded. “There is what I remember and there is this figure, which I recognise.”
Judge Cartwright attempted to find out more. According to available documents, 590 people were transferred from S-24 to S-21, including 47 staff members. But Duch admitted that others were sent directly from Prey Sar to the execution site of Choeung Ek. How many? “I cannot make an assessment,” the accused apologised. “I cannot get a clear idea of the number of people detained in S-24,” Sylvia Cartwright insisted. “Can you help me?” In the end, the only indication Duch was able to provide was statistics from March 1977 stating there were then 1,300 people kept in Prey Sar.
Later, the accused stressed that nothing was stipulated in the party line regarding people’s rehabilitation. He added: “In practice, towards the end of the existence of S-24, re-education meant smashing. Re-education was only a façade.”
The terminology of re-education
Judge Thou Mony took over. He asked Duch to clarify the terms “re-education” and “softening.” “The goal of ‘re-education’ was to reconstruct oneself, to build a new self. […] As for ‘softening’, it consisted in forming oneself through work or discipline. ‘Forming oneself’ meant working hard and respecting discipline. The people sent to S-24 were already half considered as enemies.” They were classified into three categories, according to the gravity of the offence they were accused of having committed. The tasks they were assigned did not vary from one group to another, the accused explained. “The only difference was in the rights recognised to those concerned and the freedoms granted to them.” Those belonging to the third category were the most exposed. Should they commit the slightest fault, they were “taken away.” Duch then denied the claim that foreigners were sent to Prey Sar. However, children did end up in the camp. When a woman was sent there, her children followed her.
Detention in Prey Sar: a respite before the smashing
In the afternoon, judge Lavergne led the interrogation. “What were the reasons that motivated the decision to send someone to re-education? In your opinion, it concerned people for whom it wasn’t clear whether they were friends or enemies and whom the party wanted to make sure they would not be harmful to the party by subjecting them to forced labour. […] If a person was suspect, it could be decided to re-educate him or her. Have I understood correctly?” “Yes, I believe you have,” Duch agreed. “And when a person was arrested to be sent to Prey Sar, the decision to smash him or her was already half-taken. Is that correct?” “Yes, it reflects what I said.” “Apart from the 30 individuals released on the site to provide support to Prey Sar, no other person detained in Prey Sar could be released in principle. Is that right?” “Yes, that is what I said this morning.”
The French judge continued. “You said that it was impossible for Prey Sar detainees to see any improvement in their situation and move from group 3, the most potentially harmful, to groups 2 and 1, those with lighter sentences.” “Indeed, that is what I said.” “Practically speaking, who had the power to decide to smash the Prey Sar detainees, either by sending them to Choeung Ek or Tuol Sleng? Did you refer to your superiors? […]” “I can repeat what I already said. All the combatants belonging to S-21, whether they worked in Phnom Penh or in Prey Sar, could not be arrested without the superior echelon having already made that decision for clear reasons, in other words, because they were factors affecting or destroying the forces, not because of any inefficiency in their work. For people detained in Prey Sar, the decision to kill them belonged to the S-21 Committee, but I delegated that responsibility to my deputy secretary. […] This is not to deny the fact I committed crimes, but to say that I wasn’t the one to take the concrete decisions. But I did apply the principles of the superior echelon…”
What was the basis for the decision to smash?, the judge asked. Duch then explained he was consulted in the case there was a need to extract prior confessions from these people. What about 160 children of Prey Sar sent directly to Choeung Ek? “I was not consulted because there was no reason to get confessions from these children,” Duch replied on the same tone.
Enslavement and persecutions
“The words ‘re-education’ and ‘components’ have been used a lot in the debates until now. In the Closing Order, a cruder terminology is used. It refers to “enslavement.” In your opinion, was Prey Sar a place where people were reduced to slavery?” Judge Lavergne cited an extract from the Order: “Certain detainees at S21 and Prey Sâr were forced to work. Strict control and constructive ownership was exercised over all aspects of their lives by: limiting their movement and physical environment; taking measures to prevent and deter their escape; and subjecting them to cruel treatment and abuse. As a result of these acts, detainees were stripped of their free will.” “Your Honour,” Duch replied, “the international law language used to describe Prey Sar is accurate. It matches this description.”
“For you as well, Prey Sar was a place of persecution which contributed to an extermination policy,” the judge continued. “You said that the goal sooner or later was to exterminate the people detained in Prey Sar.” “Yes, that also reflects the crimes committed in Prey Sar.”
The hearing was adjourned, nearly two hours earlier than usual. In the morning, the co-Prosecutors, as well as the international co-lawyer for civil party group 1, had requested to be allowed to ask their questions to the accused on this issue only on the next day, as they were not ready…
Robert Petit explains his resignation
The international co-Prosecutor gave a press conference on Wednesday June 24th at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as he deemed insufficient the statement he had made public on the previous day to announce his resignation which will be effective from September 1st. He stressed the decision was entirely related to personal family matters and totally unrelated to his professional responsibilities at the. He also insisted the decision would have little impact on the tribunal’s work. “[H]owever much it pains my ego to say so: I don’t believe it will have any” because, he explained, his office worked as a team. He clarified he took his decision after careful consideration, “after months of reflection and discussions with the United Nations, which is currently in the process of finding a replacement.”
Robert Petit said he was aware that his answer “may not satisfy some,” and that he also realised that “some people for whatever purposes will still try to construe some extraneous aspect to this decision.” “[There has been] some speculation that this might impact on the ongoing disagreement with my national colleague. However, again, those fears are unfounded.” And when the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC), which must rule on the dispute on whether to open new investigations, renders its decision, “I or my successor, as the case may be, will take the appropriate action from then on. […] It is entirely in the hands of the PTC. And as far as I know, they’re not going anywhere.”
Asked on the upcoming challenges for the ECCC, the Prosecutor stressed “there are also problems that are external to the court, but nonetheless fundamental, and that must be solved appropriately.” “Obviously, allegations like the ones of graft in the administration must be addressed. On a larger issue, I find it very disturbing that elected officials or anyone else but the judicial officers can think they can legitimately tell any tribunal what it should or should not do. Of course, this goes beyond the appearance of legitimacy of the proceedings and it must be resolved. Finally, when the court reaches its end, it must be able to explain the Cambodian people why it did what it did and why this should represent justice.”