Thursday, 2 July 2009

Bou Meng, long-term detainee in S-21, stirs trouble in Duch

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 03/03/2009: Bou Meng, S-21 survivor, during a preliminary hearing on Khieu Samphan at the ECCC
©John Vink/ Magnum


By Stéphanie Gée

Bou Meng, third S-21 survivor to testify, is 68 years old and already looks like a damaged old man. “I look older than I am,” he conceded. Failing hearing and memory, sight troubles, a toothless shy smile, a back that still bears the marks of repeated torture sessions… Those were as many indelible scars the slightly limping frail man listed before the court on Wednesday July 1st. The long-term effects of his detention in the centre directed by Duch. More than a year and a half, the longest among the remaining survivors still alive. Bou Meng, who joined Duch’s trial as a civil party, was touching during his testimony, so much that he seemed to manage to distress the accused, who usually appears so comfortable in the courtroom and so baffling by his apparent insensitivity. Since survivors started testifying at the beginning of the week, the trial has been watched by a packed room, thanks essentially to the tribunal who organises bus trips for people living in the vicinity.

Making the voice of the victims heard better
In reaction to the previous day hearing, Silke Studzinsky, co-lawyer for civil party group 2, suggested to the judges that “the necessary time be given to the witness so he may compose himself and continue his testimony serenely.” She added that in such cases, the time should be deducted from the time allocated to the interrogating party. Alain Werner, for civil party group 1, supported her request. The president promised to show some flexibility on that matter. However, he added it would “not be appropriate to request a half-day adjournment to allow a witness to recover his calm because that would impact on the schedule of proceedings.”

Arrested although he served the Angkar
President Nil Nonn started Bou Meng’s interrogation. He lost his wife under the Khmer Rouge regime and did not know what happened to her, the witness explained. Responding to Norodom Sihanouk’s radio call to arms, made after he was overthrown by Lon Nol in 1970, Bou Meng complied and joined the liberation forces. After the “victory” of April 17th 1975, the Angkar assigned the artist to the technical school of Russey Keo, in Phnom Penh. A year later, at his great surprise, he was transferred to a labour re-education cooperative – “it was actually forced labour” – in Kandal province. He was not sure of the dates anymore and apologised. “Because of the severe torture I suffered, my memory is no longer very accurate…” In the cooperative, the witness explained, “I was used physically as working force for the Angkar. I was pushed to my physical limits.”

He was later assigned to planting vegetables. “We used human fertilisers. What we called ‘fertiliser no. 1.’” One day, maybe in May or June 1977, he could not remember anymore, he and his wife were ordered to go and teach drawing at the Fine Arts. The vehicle that took them away did not go to the school, but to the S-21 prison. From that moment on, he was separated from his wife, who he never saw again. “I was told they were going to ‘peel my skin.’ I didn’t understand what they meant. […] I wondered what my fault was. I tried my best to serve the Angkar.” Among the torturers who tormented him, he mentioned the case of Mam Nay. “He hit me and asked me to count the blows [he gave me with a stick]. When I counted ten, he exclaimed: ‘No. There was only one!’” The chief interrogator – the very one Duch claimed did not enjoy torturing – kept going at his task. Bou Meng recounted he was then bathing in his own blood, wracked in agonising pain.

The ECCC will give justice
He stopped, a few tears ran down his face, and he bravely resumed. “I then thought of my mother who have given birth to me. I told myself that if I was able to survive all of this, I would tell my story. And at last, I am here, before Your Honours, before the ECCC [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia] and they will give justice. I am very glad about it, even if we cannot reach 100% justice…” The sobs came back. The president invited him to pull himself together in order to continue his testimony. “As you have said yourself, it has been years you have waited for the opportunity offered to you today to tell what you have experienced, to the Chamber and the public. […] If you are overwhelmed by your emotions, the Chamber will likely not have another opportunity to hear you…”

Like hell
In the mornings and the afternoons, for long weeks, Bou Meng was interrogated and tortured. No reason was given when he and his wife were arrested. “When I asked them what our fault was, they answered: ‘You are despicable. You don’t have the right to ask that kind of question. Like a pineapple, the Angkar has eyes everywhere. You were arrested because we know you have committed offences.’ […] Until now, I still do not know what fault we may have committed.” He was yet another one who had been accused of being a CIA agent.

Nil Nonn did not deem “precise” enough the description of the situation made by the survivor. “Were you still blindfolded when you were photographed [on your arrival at S-21]?” “As for the handcuffs, were they also taken off for the picture?”, etc. His detention conditions were reviewed next. Bou Meng described how they were showered with a hose in the collective cells, once a week or less, when the detainees had to get rid of their shorts and stand naked in front of laughing guards. “It was like hell. The guards made fun of us. They sometimes said we looked very small but our penises were not so small…”

“Could you show us the scars on your back?”
Bou Meng then described the position in which the interrogators forced him to hit him better: ankles shackled to a bar and face against the floor. “It is hard for me to visualise it,” the president commented. The witness repeated his explanation and illustrated his words with gestures. Later, he revealed that salted water was poured on his scarred back. “I’ll let you imagine how painful it was…” The president seemed to gloat: “Could you show us the scars on your back?” Silke Studzinsky intervened to recall it was time for the break, already past, although the president rarely forgets to announce it on time. After the break, Nil Nonn declared that the witness’ back would not be examined but that if parties wished so, they could be shown photos.

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 29/06/2009: Painting by Vann Nath, painter and S-21 survivor, shown on the screens at the ECCC during his testimony. “This scene depicts what Bou Meng told me: the interrogators took turns to hit him on the back. I made this painting for him,” Vann Nath commented
©Stéphanie Gée

Saved by painting
Late 1977, painters were needed in S-21 and Bou Meng manifested himself immediately. “I survived because I managed to paint faithful portraits of Pol Pot.” With Duch sometimes next to him to examine his work and request some corrections when needed. However, he first had to sign false confessions written for him. The witness showed a photograph of the “seven survivors” of S-21, taken at the fall of the regime for the United Nations, on which he appeared next to, among others, Vann Nath and Chum Mey, who were interrogated on the previous days. Silke Studzinsky requested if the photograph could be shown on the screen. But Nil Nonn defended his almighty president’s prerogatives and retorted: “It is not time yet for your intervention. For the moment, I am the one asking the questions.”

A fight on Duch’s request
During the day, Bou Meng recounted, Duch would come and sit at the workshop and watch them paint, whether it was portraits of Pol Pot or a Ho Chi Minh head on a dog’s body. “What was his behaviour like from what you were able to see?”, the judge asked him. “He did not beat me. But one day, I don’t know what I did wrong, he asked me to fight with Im Chan. We were given a piece of plastic pipe and we had to fight using it. He stayed there, sitting down and watching us fight. After a moment, he ordered us to stop.” No, the witness was never hit by the accused, nor did he see him torture prisoners, except for the order to fight with Im Chan. One could guess the efforts Bou Meng had to muster to convey this painful past as faithfully as possible. Frowning, lowering his head, sometimes placing a hand on his brow.

A witness unable to mourn his wife
The judge then interrogated him about his wife. “Do you think she was killed in S-21?” The question reminded Bou Meng of the one he wanted to ask the accused. “I would like to know if he asked his subordinates to eliminate my wife in S-21 or in Choeung Ek so that I can collect what remains of her and ensure her soul rests in peace.” That was a leitmotiv in his declaration. “Do you wish the question to be communicated to the accused?”, Nil Nonn asked. […] “Have you brought the picture of your wife?” The picture was the portrait made of her when she arrived at S-21, on which she was identified by a number. That was the only photograph of his wife that Bou Meng now had in his possession. The picture was shown on the screen.

The interrogation continued. Although the civil party did not witness acts of torture committed on other detainees, he heard “the screams and the calls for help.” He also caught the sight, like Vann Nath, of the emaciated prisoner who was “carried away like a pig” on a wooden rod, still alive. When he painted, he also saw female prisoners pass by, flanked by female guards who would kick them to make them walk faster.

A black outfit but not a black heart
After the lunch break, the president left the floor to other judges. To judge Cartwright, Bou Meng confirmed he had identified, among the other detainees, foreigners, Vietnamese and Westerners. To judge Lavergne, he described the work he did for the propaganda of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) after joining the armed struggle in 1971. He made “portraits of Marx and Lenin, that were roneotyped and distributed to units so they knew communist country leaders,” the witness reported. He was disappointed when the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975. “I regret that the leaders committed those inhuman acts which I cannot understand. I served them physically, but not in my heart. Even if I wore a black shirt, my heart was not black. I did what I was told to do in the limits of my skills.” His trust in the CPK crumbled on the day he was taken away from the technical school and sent to re-education. With no reason.

Human fertilisers
Judge Lavergne then attempted to discuss the episode, told on Monday [June 29th] by Vann Nath, when after disappearing for two weeks from the workshop, he returned in a poor state and was forced to apologise. The old man, tired, did not seem to understand the judge’s request or maybe he had forgotten about it. “Please forgive me. Maybe I don’t have all my memory.” Then, returning to his words on “human” fertilisers, Bou Meng explained he had heard it from the accused himself. “He said that if I could not make a portrait that looked faithfully like Pol Pot’s photograph, my body would be used as fertiliser…”

On the co-Prosecutors’ side, Robert Petit reappeared but did not ask any questions. His Cambodian colleague asked the witness if the food rations received in S-21 were sufficient or who poured salted water on his wounds. In his answers, Bou Meng described the accused as “very clever, very smart” and “educated.”

Happy to release himself of a weight
Next were the civil party lawyers. The witness’ Cambodian lawyer, Kong Pisey, started. He asked him to detail the electroshock sessions. Bou Meng explained the clips were attached to his shorts. The voltage was high and he therefore lost consciousness. Pertinent question of the lawyer: “How long did you remain unconscious?” Bou Meng smiled: “You know, when you are unconscious, it’s like when you sleep. You don’t know how long you remain unconscious.” He disclosed he was on medication to get rid of his insomnias and confessed he had not managed to eat anything today because he felt “too emotional about testifying.”

Asked by Martine Jacquin, for civil party group 3, “how [he] felt today about being a survivor,” Bou Meng answered he was “happy to relieve [himself] of this weight.” “I have made all my statements before this Chamber now and I want justice to be given to the 1.8 million people who lost their lives. […] Unfortunately, I could not save my wife’s life. […] I really want to ask this question to the accused: where was my wife killed?”

Duch touched by Bou Meng
The president invited Duch to answer. “Mr. Meng, I was very moved, especially in your case. We lived together, you were in good health and I was shocked to see you again on January 28th 2008, before the co-Investigating Judges. I would like to answer your question, but that goes beyond my capacity. My actions were committed by my subordinates. However, I suppose your wife could have been killed in the village of Choeung Ek. […] I send my respects to the soul of your wife.” Listening to him, the witness burst into tears and hid his face behind his hands, while Duch, whose statement bore hints of sincerity, broke down as well. The president: “I invite you to recover from your emotions and compose yourself. I am talking to the accused.”

The accused pulled himself together and repeated for the victims, as he explained to Chum Mey on the previous day, that “all opponents were pointed out as agents, expansionists, of the CIA, KGB, etc.” Again, Duch recognised his responsibility in the crimes committed “under the law” and said he wished to be judged by the ECCC and refused that his subordinates “also be prosecuted.”

A counter-examination by the defence
Floor to the defence. Kar Savuth launched into what seemed a counter-examination of the witness, which prompted the latter to say: “I am talking here in front of everybody. I do not want to exaggerate anything or may I be crushed by a bus. I am saying the truth here.” Bou Meng became exhausted. When he said he did not believe Duch’s subordinates could have tortured anyone without being ordered to do so, the president called him to order. “You are a survivor and your emotions come through your testimony. […] A witness is not supposed to make assumptions.” Bou Meng did not stumble before the lawyer’s attempts to highlight contradictions in his testimony. All throughout the day, Duch listened to him earnestly.

For the second consecutive day, the president forgot to thank the witness for his testimony at the end of the day.


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