Tuol Sleng / S-21 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). A “simple interrogator,” Mam Nay allegedly saw or heard nothing of the crimes committed in S-21 against prisoners he found “neither too thin or too fat”… Words that stirred heated reactions in the audience
©John Vink/ Magnum (file picture)
©John Vink/ Magnum (file picture)
By Stéphanie Gée
Mam Nay, former head of the interrogation unit at S-21 – the equivalent in this structure of the political commissioner dear to communist regimes –, returned before the Chamber on Tuesday July 14th, duly assisted by a lawyer this time, as recommended by the defence on the previous day. All throughout the day, the witness in Duch’s trial was assailed with questions by the judges – for good reason, as his answers were quite often terse, alternating between “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember,” when he was not ostensibly lying. His testimony prompted much outcry and out loud comments in the public gallery, as the audience was exasperated by such bad faith. The ten seats reserved for civil parties in the courtroom were all occupied for once.
Where should the witness’ lawyer be placed?
The tribunal managed to find a lawyer for Mam Nay but, at the start of the hearing, the defence expressed “the strongest reservations” regarding the place he was given: on the same bench as Duch’s defence counsels. “This leads to granting, by anticipation, the request of the Prosecutor to consider Mr. Mam Nay as an accused today. […] It seems to me that is not correct,” François Roux, Duch’s international co-lawyer, argued. The international co-Prosecutor, who said the situation did not offend him, added he regretted that the defence worried, on the previous day, about “whether the witness was fully aware of his rights.” William Smith stressed that the remark should not have been made in front of the witness, but before his testimony and in camera.
President Nil Nonn announced that the Chamber would not change the seat it assigned the lawyer called to assist Mam Nay, which “does not mean in any way that the witness is guilty.” He took the opportunity to recall the parties that “the trial management came under the sole authority of the Chamber.”
At M-13, Mam Nay planted potatoes…
The teacher with a toneless voice, who was detained under Norodom Sihanouk’s regime on the grounds he had associated himself with the revolution, joined as a student the Khmer Rouge movement and was then an ardent admirer of communism, he admitted. Mam Nay joined in 1973 the M-13 security centre, directed by Duch in Omleang, before following him to S-21. “At the beginning [at M-13], I wasn’t assigned any special task. I only had to plant potatoes. Occasionally, I was ordered to go to Sector 31 to make contact with its chief in order to request supplies. […] At night, [Duch] would have me sit down and observe the way he interrogated detainees. One day, he asked me to proceed to the interrogation of less important people,” the witness recounted for the president. Then, at S-21, his task was to “interrogate the detainees with lesser importance,” he explained with no more details.
The practice of torture: a mystery
Judge Thou Mony took over from Nil Nonn. “Can you tell us how the interrogations were carried out at the Omleang security office [M-13]?” “The interrogations essentially aimed to obtain biographies and know the activities of the detainees before their arrest,” Mam Nay said in a consummate art of bare replies. “What were the techniques used during interrogations, in particular when the detainee would not answer?” “Obtaining the biography was not a very important task. We asked people to simply tell us about their past activities […]. If they refused to answer, we could push them to describe them in detail.” The interrogation summaries were then sent to Duch. “Did the other interrogators practice torture?”, the judge asked. “I do not believe I know that.” “Was torture used in Omleang against detainees?” “From what I saw, it is possible torture was used or not used.” “Once the interrogation was over, was the detainee released or executed?” “I am not sure what happened. After the interrogation, the detainee was brought back to his cell…”
“I have no idea”
“Can you describe us the structure of S-21?” The former head of the interrogation unit at the detention centre again had a failing memory. “I do not have a very precise knowledge of the units in S-21, because I did not have an important position. […] I do not know the organisational details.” “Can you describe the S-21 compound and the area it encompassed?” “I don’t know it clearly.” A little later, he declared: “I interrogated [the detainees] on my own and I did not know who the other interrogators were.” “Do you remember where the people who were arrested and detained in S-21 came from?”, the judge persevered. Answer: “I don’t know.” “Who did you interrogate?” “It is difficult for me to tell you. Mostly, I interrogated soldiers or lower cadres in the hierarchy.” And other types of prisoners? “I have no idea.” “Were there Westerners in S-21?” “I have no idea, because I did not have the right to move freely or to mind the business of others.” What about Vietnamese prisoners? “Yes, there were Vietnamese prisoners. I can say so because Duch had instructed me to interrogate some of them.”
Mam Nay: “an ordinary cadre in charge of interrogations”
Judge Thou Mony returned to the interrogations: “What did you do if a detainee refused to confess?” Mam Nay explained he used diplomacy and, otherwise, he decided to send the prisoner back to his cell “to give him time to think” for a couple of days. Did he receive instructions from Duch – after sending him the interrogation report – about what should be done with the prisoners? “I do not remember.” And no, there were no meetings to discuss interrogation techniques or any supervision, in his case. As for the confessions extracted, he acknowledged that “their quality of truth was minimal.”
“Did you know where the detainees were imprisoned in S-21?”, the judge asked him. “I know nothing about this question either.” Following the line he gave himself, Mam Nay claimed he was “an ordinary cadre in charge of interrogations,” which he conducted “in a house outside of the high school compound.” He assured he had entered the S-21 compound only once. He allegedly “rarely met the other staff members.”
Detainees “neither too thin or too fat”
“Did the prisoners brought to you bear marks indicating they were previously tortured?”, Thou Mony persistently continued. “No, I did not see marks.” “Did the prisoners in S-21 receive sufficient food?” “I have no idea about this.” “Did you find those who were brought to you for interrogation in good health, thin or pale…?” Mam Nay’s reply caused some teeth gnashing in the audience: “From what I could observe, the prisoners were neither thin or pale. They appeared in a normal physical state. They were neither too thin or too fat.”
An interrogation room with no instruments of torture
“In your interrogation room, were there instruments of torture prominently displayed that could have had an intimidating effect on the state of mind of the detainee to be interrogated?” “In my room, there was no torture tool placed obviously on the table or on the walls.” “I interrogated the prisoners without resorting to torture. It is my understanding that the use of torture would result in false confessions,” he added shortly afterwards, on an innocent tone. But it is possible that torture was used in S-21 because, he suddenly justified, still with the same calm, “it was practiced by the former regime’s police.” Did you have the opportunity to interrogate female detainees?” “I do not remember it.”
One should take care of their silk-cotton tree
Mam Nay preferred not to ask questions. He also recalled a “very strict rule” that prevailed in S-21: “we could not circulate freely and we had to stay where we were posted. Just like under the former regime, when one should just ‘take care of their silk-cotton tree,’ as the saying went, and therefore be deaf and blind, except in relation to what one had to do. And if I have survived until today, it is because I followed that principle. If I had gotten involved in other people’s business, I would probably have been arrested and I would have disappeared.”
Hilarity and irritation in the audience
“Did you know what [the re-education camp of] Prey Sar was used for?” “As far as I know, Prey Sar was used to keep people who grew rice.” As for the Choeung Ek execution site, the witness claimed he “never knew” where it was located.
Leaning forward and hands crossed, Mam Nay appeared to be at ease. In the room, villagers played to anticipate his responses to the questions of the judges: “I don’t know.” A woman burst: “Send him back home if he doesn’t know anything.” Another decreed: “Mam Nay invented a new interrogation method with no torture.” Here, it was heard: “There were so many dead and he didn’t see anything,” and there: “he’s lying.” There was laughter, protest, irritation.
A “very intelligent” witness
In light of the witness’ studies and career, from school teacher to principal, judge Cartwright concluded: “One can say you are someone who is extremely educated and very intelligent.” “I do not boast about it, but what you say is not quite wrong.” Did Duch give instructions to interrogators on how to carry out interrogations? “I do not believe I know the answer to that.”
Back to the topic of the Vietnamese prisoners he had to interrogate. Mam Nay confessed to the New Zealand judge that those had been arrested “on the battlefield” and were therefore considered as war prisoners, whose confessions were recorded and broadcast on the radio. Indeed, Pol Pot’s regime was eager to carry out its propaganda outside of the country to denounce an aggression by the neighbouring country.
No idea about the fate reserved to the detainees
Silvia Cartwright as well returned to the fate awaiting prisoners once their confessions were extracted. As Mam Nay persisted in saying they were brought back to their cell, she asked him: “We know that the policy at S-21 was the one described by the accused, that is any person detained was presumed guilty and hence, any person detained at S-21 had to be executed one day. Is that correct?” “I have no idea.” She then raised the issue of the armed conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam. “When did it start?” “I do not remember the precise date […]. The conflict had started a very long time ago already, before the liberation [of April 17th 1975] because the Vietcong soldiers had been driven out of the country and the Vietnamese had attacked our frontiers.” Then, he corrected himself when the judge asked him to confirm his statement: in the end, the border conflict started “after” the liberation.
“Do you have memory problems?”
It was judge Lavergne’s turn to try and make the witness talk. When Mam Nay was incarcerated under Norodom Sihanouk’s regime, he ended up in the same cell as Duch. “What did you two talk about? Did you have political discussions?”, he asked. “During my detention, we never talked about politics, but about our need to eat to be able to survive.” When Mam Nay later joined the Communist Party of Kampuchea and was led to write his biography, did he mention his release from jail thanks to an intervention by Lon Nol, following a request from his family? “I do not remember that. I am not sure I mentioned it.”
On the next “I don’t remember well” uttered by the witness, Jean-Marc Lavergne retorted: “Do you have memory problems?” Mam Nay then justified most naturally memory troubles that arose after an accident in his youth. “Sometimes, I don’t even remember the name of my children…” “Did other people in M-13 use the same alias [Chan] as you?” “There was no one else.” He had hardly answered before his newly-appointed lawyer, Kong Sam Eoun, intervened: “I think my client did not hear the question clearly.” Judge Lavergne to Mam Nay: “Do you have hearing problems?” “Yes, it is a little difficult for me to hear,” the witness recognised. “Do you hear me well today?” Yes, the witness understood the question but took the chance to change his answer to the question he was asked into: “I wouldn’t be able to say.”
Mam Nay and the potato
“Aside from growing potatoes, did Duch give you any special responsibilities, especially when he had to go out of the M-13 centre?” No, the witness claimed. The judge tried again: “Maybe the accused can remind us of this, but during this testimony, he said that when he had to go out of M-13, he entrusted the direction of the centre either to Pon or to Mam Nay. Back then, did you have sight problems, Mr. Mam Nay?”
Judge Lavergne shook him up, put him in his place. The tone was sharp, one would almost believe Mam Nay was the accused. A good feeling. The roles were inverted. The witness was seen as what he was: a joker with very bad taste who was not fooling anyone.
“Did the detention conditions of the prisoners, who were placed in pits, seem to you normal, satisfying, compatible with human dignity?” “From what I could see, they were shackled, shirtless and were only wearing their shorts.” Mam Nay then assured he did not work as a guard at M-13. On this point again, the judge contrasted his statement with that of the accused, “who had indicated it was one of your functions.” Jean-Marc Lavergne then read an extract of the testimony of a witness, who was detained in M-13 and claimed he saw at M-13 “Chan” shoot in the head two men, who were tied to a post among others. Shortly before, that scene had not evoked anything to the witness, after it was told to him without citing his name.
In light of the differences that emerged between the statements already made by Duch and Mam Nay’s testimony, in particular regarding the detention conditions which the former described as “cruel,” the judge wondered: “Mr. Mam Nay, you have lived with the accused, haven’t you?” Still unruffled, the witness argued: “First, I deny: I never shot anyone. Secondly, the prisoners’ detention was a necessary measure while the country was attacked by the US imperialists through Lon Nol’s regime. Living conditions both for prisoners and for ordinary people were dreadful. […] At the time, a small bit of potato was all I ate to last the whole day. Even if we weren’t detainees, we had more or less the same food rations as the prisoners.” “Speaking of food,” the judge followed, “could you remind us who was in charge of the food for the staff, whether at M-13 or S-21?” It was… Mam Nay’s wife.
When the French judge brought up the episode of particularly violent floods at M-13, Mam Nay said he remembered. “Only 100 meters from the prison, the water was already at the level of my waist. […] Many people went for shelter on the roofs. Even pigs died in this flood. I do not know if people also died during the flooding.” The last sentence came with echoes of a statement by Nuon Chea, made when he surrendered late 1998: “Naturally, we are sorry, not only for the loss of people’s lives but also for those of animals.”
Pause on documents
Presenting himself as a disciplined subordinate who did what he was told to, Mam Nay was faced with documents from the Khmer Rouge period he allegedly authored. The witness did not have “clear memories” looking at them. “In your memory, if it can freshen up a little, is the name indicated at the bottom of this document yours?”, the judge asked, slightly irritated. Mam Nay noted the document was entirely typed and not handwritten, so he was unable to say anything about its authenticity… The judge insisted: “You were the only one able to issue such a document at S-21, weren’t you?” Shortly afterwards, Mam Nay replied, with a tad of insolence: “I am doing my best to try and refresh my memory, but nothing is coming back to me.” His lawyer took the floor. He noted his client could not see the whole document and it was difficult for him to grasp its content. He also expressed concern over the large “scope of questions” the judges asked the witness. The president found the first observation “justified” but for the second one, he recalled that the Chamber followed the procedure and asked “all the questions it deems useful.”
Right to silence… and duty to tell the truth
François Roux then decided to intervene as well, for a “clarification.” “Article 28 of the Internal Rules must be recalled, that is, a witness may object to self-incrimination […] and is entitled to remain silent on questions that may result in self-incrimination.” It was not the role of the defence to make such a reminder, even more so since the president had already duly informed the witness of his rights. Also, following a similar intervention by the defence on the previous day, the Chamber offered legal aid to Mam Nay, who was now assisted by a lawyer by his side. Alain Werner, co-lawyer for civil party group 1, joined the debate, with pertinence, by then requesting that the witness also be reminded his obligations under articles 35 and 36 of the Internal Rules, regarding “false testimony under solemn declaration” among others. The witness had the right to remain silent, indeed, but he also had the duty to “say the truth.”
Duch rushed to rescue Mam Nay
No sooner had judge Lavergne resumed the floor and asked another question than Duch intervened, while the president allowed it. The accused then launched into obscure explanations that completely lost the judge, who kept being interrupted. The accused was then asked to repeat himself. He tried to demonstrate that the documents shown on the screen bore Mam Nay’s name, unbeknownst to him. He just remembered it. And said he understood the witness’ surprise at discovering these documents. The two former comrades stuck together. Duch struggled to convince. The judge made him repeat his explanations, to no avail. They remained as entangled as ever…
Detainees who arrived at interrogation in good health
Finally, the judge was able to return to his question: “In your opinion, when you worked at S-21, […] were all the detainees in good health?” “When I was sent prisoners, they were healthy.” During his hearing, Mam Nay had explained to the court representatives that the revolution’s failure was to be attributed to the Cambodian people’s internal conflicts and the Vietnamese invasion. Did he have regrets? “That our country was invaded first by the United States, then by the Vietnamese.” Judge Lavergne: “I do not have any further questions to the accused, I mean, the witness.” One minute later, the international co-Prosecutor made the same slip…
Mam Nay, a revolutionary from the outset who left the Khmer Rouge movement only when it crumbled, was not going to belie the portrait of the gentle interrogator which the accused had started to sketch about him since a few weeks ago. However, he could have remained silent, a right he was previously informed about by the president. But he preferred to lie by omission or without scruples. His denial was such that it became contemptuous towards the countless victims. Will the lies in his testimony serve his companion Duch, who has been claiming since the start of the trial that he recognised his crimes and wanted to cooperate with the court? One doubts it.
Mam Nay’s testimony will continue on the next day [Wednesday July 15th].
(translated from French by Ji-Sook Lee)