Choeung Ek (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 16/01/ 2008: On Duch’s initiative, after being interrogated and tortured, S-21 detainees were no longer executed in the centre but in Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The former Khmer Rouge claims he went there only once.
©John Vink / Magnum
©John Vink / Magnum
By Stéphanie Gée
During the hearing on Wednesday June 17th, the judges interrogated Duch on the implementation of the policy of smashing. On this issue, the accused claimed he had little first-hand information and confessed he was aware of the execution work but preferred to turn his back on it. He explained himself in a long tirade by the end of the day, without questioning his responsibility but instead putting it back in the context of the system then established under the Khmer Rouge and of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s line, which he said transformed trained or educated people such as himself into criminals.
Duch avoided to attend the scenes of horror
The accused explained to judge Thou Mony that the decision to smash the detainees was not his own but originated from the high command. However, in accordance with the party line, prisoners must not be killed before they had finished making full confessions. His deputy Hor therefore presented him the names of those who had completed their confessions and Duch would take the decision to send them to their death. When the judge asked him if he provided his staff with a training to teach them how to kill, the accused recited a Cambodian saying: “Crocodile do not need to be taught how to swim. They already know how to swim.”
Asked for more details on the executions, Duch stated: “I tried to avoid attending those scenes. I did not watch them.” However, he was aware that a child had been killed - his head was smashed against a tree - and he conceded his case was likely not an exception. In December 1978, faced with a surge of new prisoners arriving in S-21, he reported that Uncle Nuon, also known as Brother Nr 2, gave the order not to interrogate them but to execute them directly to avoid prison overcrowding.
In S-21, six detainees - five artists and one dentist - and about fifteen people who were assigned tasks were spared: “I see Chum Mey [mechanic and civil party to the trial] here in the courtroom. He is one of them.” Duch added that they could have been sent to be executed at any time, should the superiors have ordered it. “Did you have the possibility to spare detainees?”, Thou Mony asked him. “In S-21, and probably in the other security centres too,” Duch replied, “the committees could take the decision to keep detainees for them to work in the centre. But we retained a right of life or death over them. Also, we had to justify to our superiors why we kept them.”
Bodies of children were buried in S-21 and its surroundings as well as in Choeung Ek, which he did not see with his own eyes, he claimed. As for the babies brought with their mothers, they were killed “silently.” There again, Duch repeated he had not witnessed such scenes and ignored the number of those killed. He explained that burying the bodies was the rule, except for those of Westerners, which were cremated, following an order given by Pol Pot and transmitted by Uncle Nuon. The latter had called them in front of Duch “long-nosed people.” Nothing must be left of their bodies.
The transfer of executions to Choeung Ek
Duch decided on his own initiative to move the executions from S-21 to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in Choeung Ek. He simply informed his superiors about his initiative. He recognised there were many people executed within S-21 or the area surrounding the security centre. “I was afraid of epidemic. The execution and burial of bodies in S-21 started to become problematic because there were so many. The situation had reached such a level that it would have been impossible to avoid epidemic,” he explained. The decision was taken at a time when waves of mass detentions took place, in late December 1976-early January 1977, and it responded to health, food and security concerns.
To take the prisoners to Choeung Ek without raising their suspicions that would be their final destination, “they were usually told they were being transferred to a new house so that they were less agitated and made less noise.” “That being said, their hands were tied in their back and their eyes blindfolded, so they could not have escaped.” From what he knew, as yet again, he did not see anything. “I went only once to Choeung Ek. […] And I did not go close to the edge of the graves. My visit was very short.” He compared it to the equally express visit made to S-21 by his superior Son Sen. Duch also added he had not deemed useful to go back and therefore ignored how many graves were dug there. But he said he knew prisoners were executed one by one. He acknowledged he could have asked questions to the staff posted in Choeung Ek to find out more - or rather to his deputy Hor - but he never did.
Who operated in Choeung Ek? The accused explained that according to the communist terminology of the time, it was a “special unit” whose role was to be the executioners. “However, the unit itself was not responsible for those crimes. I was the father of that unit.” The members of the combatant unit had “good biographies.” They had been transferred to S-21 and were recognised for their experience in arrests – never leaving the chance for their victims to resist them – and for their predisposition to kill, Duch stressed. He added he had recruited some of them to complete his interrogators team. He also recognised that some of those who had been designated to carry out the dirty work were exempt from any sanction. Duch said he was not in contact with them, nor did he seek any, and did not deny he provoked fear in them.
The practice of photographing certain bodies
Except for those detainees subjected to medical experimentations or blood collection that resulted in their death, the execution method followed was to slit one’s throat before - in what represented a return to the practice in the former security centre led by Duch, M-13 - knocking out the enemies by hitting them in the back of their neck with a bamboo stick. In response to questions from judge Lavergne, the accused argued that although one could talk about methods, in the end, “we used any kind of method to kill someone. […] What mattered was that the person was actually dead.” To prove that some detainees deemed important had been executed, their bodies were photographed. Duch added the pictures sent to the superior echelon who demanded them. Some of those pictures showed that not only was their jugular vein slit, but they were also disembowelled, as in the case of Nath, the former director of S-21, or Von Vet, the former Khmer Rouge Minister of Industry, he noted. “I was very shocked [by these photographs] and so were my superiors.” Bodies of detainees of “little importance” were also photographed, this time on the initiative of S-21 staff members, keen to show their loyalty to the party by showing that prisoners under their responsibility had not escaped. A way for them to protect themselves as well. If Duch examined each of the photographs of detainees taken upon their arrival in S-21 - with an identification number pinned on their chest - before sending them to his superiors, he claimed he never looked at those of bodies.
When judge Lavergne read an excerpt from a testimony from the case file claiming that human ashes served as fertilizer, Duch said he did not believe that could have been the case, as few bodies were incinerated anyway, according to him.
The end of S-21
In the last days of S-21, early January 1979, Duch received the order from Nuon Chea to take all the prisoners to Choeung Ek. He only managed to spare four soldiers of the Y8 unit whom he wished to interrogate. “I was scared. I thought it was going to be my turn next. I was ill-at-ease and I did not manage to work. […] In fact, the order did not aim to make room for the arrival of other prisoners, as I had thought.” Indeed, he later understood that the regime leaders wanted to get rid of all the S-21 detainees because they seemed to believe in an imminent defeat before the Vietnamese. However, apparently surprised by the fast progress of the enemy troops, Nuon Chea and Pol Pot did not take any preparatory measure for withdrawal. Duch only received the order to execute the four members of the Y8 unit and to empty the premises. As they fled in a rush, he forgot the people he left behind him in S-21, in particular those he had kept to serve him as well as the five artists that Pol Pot had kept alive so they built a monument in his glory at the top of Wat Phnom, in Phnom Penh.
Self-protection by not looking at reality
Judge Lavergne summarised Duch’s position efficiently: “It emerges from your statements during the last days in this court that you had no desire to visit the places of detention, that you did not want to see or hear the prisoners, whether they be interrogated or tortured, nor the wish to see them be executed, to know the methods or places where they were executed, unless you were forced to do so by an order from your superiors…” “You have understood correctly,” the accused commented. “Was this unwillingness meant to protect yourself, to protect yourself from a reality that disturbed you or from an uncomfortable situation?” “All you have said is true.”
“The party line turned educated people into criminals”
When the judge then asked him if his work was reduced to a simple mathematical exercise and ensuring the quality of confessions, Duch launched into a long statement: “Yes, I was very involved in the work related to confessions. I tried to do my best, day and night, tirelessly. But during that period, I tried to avoid the places that could affect me emotionally. I knew that criminal actions were being perpetrated but I tried to comfort myself. This government [the Khmer Rouge] is responsible before history. As for me, I was a police agent and as such, I had to perform my task. I was scared, I was shocked, I was moved, but there was a profound feeling that kept me going. However, if I look at that past from today, after reading again the notes I wrote on the confessions, I can see that what I did was even more criminal than the actions perpetrated by the special unit that took the prisoners to Choeung Ek to be executed there on their superiors’ order. As for me, I made notes on the confessions with my own hand. I wrote and sent reports to my superiors. I tried to be very objective in these notes for my superiors who believed in them to the extent they led to further arrests. That is why I am responsible for the crimes committed in S-21 and I bear more responsibility than others […]. But the documents describing the party line I used to train the staff had an even more criminal nature than my annotations on the confessions. Why? Because the party line as it was circulated represented real pressure on the people with training or education and the party line was what turned these people into criminals or cruel people. In conclusion, if you look today at a picture of me from that period, I appeared proud of the work I did, which was firmly maintaining the class position. But in hindsight and after reflection, I would say I am ashamed. It is shocking and one can only feel shame at seeing oneself on such a picture, at being responsible for the death of over 10,000 people. […] I am emotionally responsible for the death of over one million people and I am responsible for the acts perpetrated. Until the end of my life.” Duch seemed overwhelmed by emotion and asked the president to stop at that point.
Unfortunately, president Nil Nonn did not consider it appropriate to adjourn the hearing on that note. He asked the accused a particular question whilst knowing the reply would involve Duch talking again about professor Phung Ton, something that had caused him to cry on the previous day. “If I had known that he [Phung Ton] was there [in S-21], I would have helped him even if he were to be smashed later. If I had known, I would have helped him,” he repeated, looking haggard, assuring that he had not betrayed the soul of his professor. Duch added that Phung Ton, whose widow and daughter applied as civil parties to his trial, “likely” died of hunger or sickness, that he “was not tortured”, and his body was “probably” buried within S-21. As if he was trying to offer a few comforting words to the two women.
As Thursday is a public holiday, the hearing will resume on Monday June 22nd. It will be the turn of the co-Prosecutors, followed by the civil party lawyers, to interrogate Duch on the functioning of S-21 and Choeung Ek.