By Richard Shears
05th August 2009
A Briton captured and held in a notorious Khmer Rouge torture camp in Cambodia may have been burned alive in a chilling necklace-style execution, it has emerged.
A former security guard in Pol Pot's feared S-21 prison told a war crimes tribunal that one of four Westerners captured on a yacht while sailing in Cambodian waters was picked out for the horrifying murder.
British teacher John Dewhirst, 26, from Newcastle upon Tyne , was with an American, an Australian, a Canadian and a New Zealander in 1978 when their yacht was intercepted by one of Pol Pot's patrol boats.
The Canadian, Stuart Glass, was shot, and Mr Dewhirst and the remaining crew were taken to the grim prison - a place of interrogation, torture and execution.
Former security guard Cheam Soeu, now 52, told the tribunal in Phnom Penh that he was a youth when he joined the Khmer Rouge and helped the communist regime take power. He was a guard at S-21 for two years - and during that time the four Westerners were among the prisoners.
He recalled being outside the prison late one evening and saw one of the Westerners -he does not know which - being led by three security guards to the street.
Pol Pot, Communist ruler of the Khmer Rouge, is said to have ordered the execution of the four Westerners
'The prisoner was still alive. They asked him to sit down and they put a car tyre over his body,' he told told the hushed court.
Then, he said, the guards set the tyre, and the body, on fire.
'I saw the charred torso of the body and black burned legs.'
If the victim was Mr Dewhirst, it would be the first time his actual fate has become known.
It had always been assumed that he and the other Westerners had been given the usual death sentence handed down to thousands of other prisoners who were marched into the notorious prison.
They would be tortured with beatings and electric shocks, interrogated and then shot, their bodies dumped in what became known as the killing fields. Many of those executed were burned.
Earlier this year, the commander of the S-21 prison, Kaing Guek Eav - also known as Duch - told the tribunal that it was Pol Pot, who died in 1998, who personally ordered that the four Westerners be executed and then burned.
'I received an order from my superiors that the four Westerners had to be smashed and burned to ashes,' he said. 'It was an absolute order from my superiors. Pol Pot, not Uncle Nuon' - the regime's second in command - 'personally ordered to burn the bodies.'
Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, at his trial on the outskirts of Phnom Penh
But yesterday, after the detailed claim was made that one of the Westerners was still alive when a tyre was put around his neck and set alight, Duch denied that the prisoner had met such a fate.
'It's hard for me to believe that the prisoner was burned alive,' he said.
'I believe that nobody would dare to violate my order. They had to be killed and then burned to ash.'
Before his capture and execution, Mr Dewhirst was on a dream voyage with his friends cruising the Gulf of Thailand.
Then they were captured at gunpoint by a Khmer Rouge gunboat when they strayed too close to the Cambodian coast and were accused of being spies.
Mr Dewhirst was forced to make a signed confession that he was a CIA agent, having been recruited by his father at the age of 12.
His father, he was forced to erroneously claim, was a CIA agent whose cover was that of a secondary school headmaster.
In signing the confession, he had also signed his own death warrant.
The only Briton to die in the killing fields, Mr Dewhirst was executed just a few weeks before Pol Pot's regime was overthrown by invading forces from Vietnam.
Kaing Guek Eav has told the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal that he wanted to apologise for his actions under the Khmer Rouge, whose radical policies while in power from 1975 to 1979 left an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dead.
The hearing began in February.