Friday, 10 July 2009

A former S-21 nurse’s tale of a family of fallen revolutionaries

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 15/02/2009: Civil party Khoeum Meth continued her testimony, followed by a former Khmer Rouge nurse, also a plaintive
©John Vink/ Magnum (file picture)


By Stéphanie Gée

On Thursday July 9th, before the parties interrogated by turns Mrs. Chim Meth (or Khoeum Meth), president Nil Nonn reminded them they “must not ask questions that are long or disconnected from the facts.” The survivor, whose place of detention before she was sent to the Prey Sar re-education camp remained unclear, was followed by a former S-21 nurse. Part of a revolutionary family that was purged by a paranoid regime, she inaugurated a new category of civil parties: people who voluntarily served the murderous Angkar before being crushed in their turn by the hellish system.

What did the civil party say yesterday?
Very quickly, a small controversy started over the civil party’s photograph, taken in 1977 and presented in court on the previous day. Marie-Paule Canizarès, co-lawyer for the accused, declared that if all parties agreed to say the photograph was taken in Prey Sar (S-24), the defence would accept that the document was put before the Chamber. Kim Mengkhy, one of the lawyers for Mrs. Chim Meth, protested. “We are not sure where the photograph was taken. The civil party said it had been taken before her arrest, so it cannot have been at S-24…” The French lawyer maintained her stance: “I am going through my notes from yesterday, following the statement of the civil party who, asked by Your Honour whether the photograph had been taken in Prey Sar or in S-21, answered very precisely that it was in Prey Sar. Therefore, I believe that in light of the civil party’s statement, there can be no doubt over the conditions in which the picture was taken.”

Martine Jacquin, co-lawyer for Chim Meth, could be heard protesting in her microphone, which she hadn’t realised was still off: “I do not agree. That is not what she said.” She took the floor again, this time officially: “According to the notes we took, the civil party stated that the picture had been taken in her unit when her biography was made in her unit, and that at the time, she hadn’t been particularly worried about it. Afterwards, when she arrived at the detention centre, the biography and photograph were already there. The accused said it was done in Prey Sar, but for the civil party, she first went to the detention centre and then, she was sent to Prey Sar, while the photographs were made before.”

It turned out that the two lawyers were right, quoting from two different extracts of the civil party’s testimony – after the author of this article verified recordings of the French interpretation of her statement. This illustrated the ambiguities in her testimony, which were not picked up, starting with the location of unit 17, which the civil party belonged to and sometimes located in Prey Sar, sometimes in other places… The only constant on this point of her story was that the photographs were taken before she was arrested.

Duch: the photograph was taken in S-24
Judge Cartwright decided to clarify things with the accused and asked him on what grounds he inferred that the picture, although displayed in S-21, actually originated from Prey Sar. Duch simply returned to the confusions made orally by the civil party, highlighting that she had actually declared the photograph had been taken in Prey Sar, “according to the transcript.” So, actually, the judge pursued, you are relying on Mrs. Chim Meth’s words and you do not have any other argument to support the conclusion you made yesterday? “Any person sent to S-21 was photographed by our staff and a number was also required, especially for people who came from S-24,” he answered without answering and said he hardly knew the relevant procedure that prevailed in Prey Sar. “In principle, people sent to Prey Sar had to be photographed, except for the children, as far as I remember,” he added however. And when the picture does not bear any identification number as is the case here, what does that mean?, the national co-Prosecutor asked Duch, without receiving any satisfying reply.

Mystery over Mrs. Chim Meth’s place of detention
Return to Chim Meth’s interrogation. The Cambodian co-Prosecutor sought to verify Duch’s assertion that each division had its own detention centre (cf. previous day hearing). Did she see prisons in her division, the 450? The civil party did see women from her unit “disappear” but “we were told they were taken to be re-educated. I wasn’t told they were taken to be imprisoned. It was impossible for me to know whether there was a place of detention for these people within the unit.”

In her unit 17, no interrogation or torture, but a quota to fulfil: transplanting at least one hectare of rice per day. Chim Meth described the difficult working conditions, in particular the plough that had to be pulled manually throughout the rice fields, in spite of exhaustion and injuries.

The international co-Prosecutor presented on the screen a statement made by Chim Meth to the Centre for Social Development (CSD, an NGO), as a preliminary step to her application as potential civil party. “This document, was it read to you and do you think it is authentic?”, he asked her. “I recognise my handwriting. I wrote it based on my own feelings.” The co-Prosecutor requested that the document be retained as an element of evidence and sat down. Silence. His speaking time was not yet over. He stood up again. “In this document, you noted that on the second day, you realised you were in Tuol Sleng. Can you tell us more?” “Actually, I knew it only when CSD brought the documents with my photograph. That’s when I realised that I had been detained in a prison which I didn’t know at the time was Tuol Sleng. I only knew I was imprisoned in a building oriented East-West.”

“In the same document,” the co-Prosecutor continued, “you stated that you realised the prison was directed by Duch.” There again, the civil party made a divergent statement. “I did not personally see or recognise Duch. But comrade Meng, who was detained there with me, […] told me [someone named] Duch was now the chief of the Tuol Sleng security office. I learned that when I was detained in Prey Sar.”

Last question from the co-Prosecutor: “Yesterday, you told the Chamber that when your co-detainees went to wash and came back, they warned you by saying: ‘better to die rather than go and wash.’ In your opinion, what may have been the reason for that warning?” Chim Meth said she never found out…

Civil party lawyers chided by the president
Martine Jacquin, co-lawyer for the civil party, then returned at length to the personal story of her client – who was raised by her grandparents and forcibly recruited as a teenager in the Khmer Rouge army. This warranted her two calls to order, separated by a few minutes, by the president, who accused her of asking questions that were off-topic and outside of the temporal jurisdiction of the tribunal (from April 17th 1975 to January 6th 1979).

Her Cambodian colleague, Kim Mengkhy, quickly requested to interrogate the accused: in your opinion, what did Chim Meth’s picture in S-21 prove? Why did someone like Chim Meth, who came from the same district as you, have to be sent to Prey Sar and be treated like a slave? Did you know her father, a high-ranking police officer, educated and native from the same district as you? You said that women’s interrogations were entrusted to women, yet the civil party was interrogated by men… Etc. He was inexhaustible. The president intervened: “Do you think the accused is able to answer a flurry of questions?”

Duch selected the questions. He said he did not know the civil party’s father and the photographs “were taken for the superior echelon concerning any detainee they wanted a picture of.” He concluded, on the tone of a studious student to his teacher: “If you have other questions, ask them to me one by one.”

“I am responsible before the court”
The lawyer was not flustered. He had three minutes left: “The accused said that in all the cases, he was emotionally responsible to all the victims for the crimes committed. Can you tell Mrs. Chim Meth present here whether your emotional responsibility applies to her and if so, to what extent?” “Regarding Chim Meth, I am not emotionally responsible,” Duch answered. “I am fully responsible for the crimes committed before the court.”

A confused testimony
Time for the defence. “In this text – which you told us you wrote yourself –, you claimed you were electrocuted. But when you answered a question from the president yesterday, you said you had not been electrocuted. Why the discrepancy?”, Kar Savuth asked Chim Meth. “I did not suffer electroshocks at the detention centre, in Prey Sar, but in my unit, when I was asked to write my biography,” the civil party specified.

“I do not know if I was detained in Tuol Sleng”
When she recently went to Tuol Sleng with CSD representatives, Chim Meth explained to Marie-Paule Canizarès, she was unable to determine whether she had been detained there, as she had been blindfolded. “Is it then fair to say that the only element that makes you say today you may have been detained in Tuol Sleng at the time is the picture of yourself displayed there?”, the lawyer asked. “When I saw my own photograph, and that of other women from my unit, I did not realise I had been detained in Tuol Sleng. […] As I said, I did not know if I was or had been detained in Tuol Sleng. I was imprisoned in a detention centre. Was it Tuol Sleng or not? I did not know.”

Recommendations to the judges regarding a fragile civil party
Chim Meth’s statement was over. Another civil party was waiting to enter the courtroom. But before that, Silke Studzinsky, co-lawyer for civil party group 2, which includes the forthcoming witness, made some “preliminary remarks.” “Today,” she warned, “our client will dare to reveal her story, which is much larger than what is recorded in the civil party application form.” It seemed that this civil party started opening to her lawyers about her past only “very recently.” Silke Studzinsky announced the program for her client’s testimony: her personal relationship with well-placed Khmer Rouge parents, the training she received to become medical staff, her two older brothers who worked in S-21, and a word on the accused. Cautious, the lawyer insisted: “Our client is feeling particularly anxious about taking the floor today before the Chamber. […] It is therefore to be expected that she will be overwhelmed by emotion. […] I ask the Chamber to take this into account. […] I ask you to give time to the civil party without inviting her to control her emotions […], to wait until she recomposes herself or to plan for a recess.”

To judge Cartwright, she specified that her team had met the civil party three times, including once “a very long time ago.” The New Zealand judge recalled to the attention of the civil party lawyers that the Chamber had asked them to provide them with some guidelines on how to treat the witnesses and shot the following comment in Silke Studzinsky’s direction: “We are all experienced judges. I am not sure we require the advice you just gave us.”

A Khmer Rouge civil party at the stand
Mrs. Nam Mon, a 48-year-old farmer, took her seat. In mid-1975, when she was 15, she joined the tiny medical staff of S-21 (three members). The life of that Khmer Rouge family was turned upside down when the father, who worked in “logistics,” was arrested in 1977. One of the older sons – two of them became guards in Tuol Sleng – received the order to execute their father. The ones after the others, they turned to detainees. Six of her relatives did not come back from S-21. Only Nam Mon survived.

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 09/07/2009: Mrs. Nam Mon, farmer and former nurse under the Khmer Rouge, during her testimony at the ECCC
©Stéphanie Gée

Accused of betraying the Khmer Rouge cause, she was also arrested early 1978 and was detained for three months at S-21, before being transferred to the Prey Sar re-education camp. There, she was assigned for the five months she spent in the camp to digging pits to bury the dead children. Then, she was sent to another prison shortly before the arrival of the Vietnamese. Nam Mon was still only a child, she recalled, when her father, a “small shopkeeper” joined the Khmer Rouge revolutionary forces. “He was then an informer in Phnom Penh.”

A president who loses patience
The petite woman, who kept her arms stuck to her body and lowered her eyes every time she spoke, gave a vague story, sometimes answering beside the point, which resulted in Nil Nonn becoming irritated and lecturing her: “Please, listen to the question carefully.” The illiterate woman’s answers seemed at times to exasperate the president, while he tried to have her identify the S-21 building where she worked, without using any map… “When you entered through the main gate, was it the building on the left or on the right?”, the judge repeated, lost as to how to phrase the question. The civil party multiplied her answers, with little clarity. “Are you sure you remember which way is East and which is West?”, the judge seemed to worry.

It was only much later that it was decided to show on the screen an aerial picture of Tuol Sleng, which the civil party still struggled to make sense of. When the Cambodian co-Prosecutor suggested to print the document to make it easier for Nam Mon, he was immediately rebuffed by the president, who exclaimed most inappropriately: “Wait until it is your turn to speak.” A countless number of plans and photographs of S-21 exist, which could also have been shown to the civil party.

During her three-month captivity in S-21, early 1978, Nam Mon found herself in the hands of interrogators with whom she was unable to argue her statute as a colleague. “They were new. I didn’t know them. The guards were constantly changing.” Her father was detained for six months – a long time in a prison such as S-21.

A number of elements in her story caught the attention: that her relatives were killed, according to her, in S-21 at a time when executions took place on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in Choeung Ek, to avoid epidemics, or that her mother did not work under the Khmer Rouge before her arrest, as she indicated. The former S-21 nurse may also be able to shed new light on the medical experimentations and the practice of drawing blood that were allegedly performed on S-21 prisoners and which Duch has finally started acknowledging since very recently.

The hearing was adjourned earlier than usual. In spite of an additional recess and the presence of a member of the Victims Support Unit by her side, it became too much for Nam Mon when she was shown the picture of one of her disappeared relatives. She is scheduled to come back and finish her testimony on Monday July 13th.

(translated from French by Ji-Sook Lee)

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