Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, sits in a courtroom in Phnom Penh in February 2012. The former teacher became the top torturer for Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. (Photo: AFP)
Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, the dreaded commandant of the S-21 interrogation and extermination center under the Khmer Rouge who was sentenced by a United Nations-backed court to life in prison for crimes against humanity, has died in Cambodia. He was 77.
Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), said the man responsible for the systematic deaths of at least 16,000 people, including babies, died shortly after midnight today.
Throughout Case 001, Duch stood motionless in the dock. His eyes — wide and vacant — betrayed little of the man who hoped to mitigate his responsibilities. He was initially sentenced to 30 years behind by bars but this was extended on appeal to life in 2012.
Duch apologized routinely for the horrors inflicted at S-21 including water boarding, electrification, disembowelment, operations performed without an anesthetic, and blood being drained from prisoners for transfusions elsewhere.
Children were taken from their mothers, fingernails were torn out and prisoners were left chained to rotting corpses for days in the tropical heat. Meals were rare, beatings were common.
However, the 16,000 people who perished at the abandoned high school in suburban Tuol Sleng and in the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh were small in number compared with the two million who were murdered or died of starvation and illness under Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoists between 1975 and 1979.
What set the victims of S-21 apart from the brutality afflicting the rest of the country was the disciplined, calculating and well-documented method with which they were dispatched.
At the time of his conviction, eminent scholar David Chandler said Duch — a former mathematics teacher — was different on two counts from other senior Khmer Rouge leaders of the day.
“He was very intelligent and he has apologized. He’s interesting to that extent. None of the others have apologized and they were not very intelligent,” he told this journalist.
It was a point taken up by Rob Hamill, a New Zealander whose family was torn apart after learning his brother Kerry had been captured by the Khmer Rouge and perished along with a handful of other Westerners at S-21.
“He effectively ran the secret police. He developed the system. He was the mathematical genius who created the killing machine that the rest of the country followed,” Hamill said.
Hamill was referring to M-13, a previously unknown death camp that emerged in evidence during the trial.
The camp was established by Duch as a prototype in a communist-held zone in 1971, when Pol Pot's forces were still battling the US-backed Lon Nol government for control of the country.
From behind a wall of bullet-proof glass, Duch told the court that M-13 was designed to "detain, to torture and to smash, that is to kill" and according to evidence it was here that Duch was "happy like a madman" while torturing prisoners.
One M-13 worker testified that he watched Duch hang a woman from a tree, strip off her shirt and burn her breasts with a lit kerosene rag. In all, 196 death camps like S-21 were constructed based on the M-13 model of ruthless efficiency.
More than 5,000 forced confessions were also obtained at S-21 and Duch corroborated earlier claims over chains of command made by Ieng Thirith — a former minister for social affairs in Pol Pot's cabinet and the wife of Ieng Sary, the regime's foreign minister.
Both said ultimate responsibility for S-21 lay with Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea, who along with the former head of state Khieu Samphan was found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide. The Iengs died before judgment day. Nuon Chea died a year ago.
All four were instrumental in providing the overarching power structure under which Duch could thrive.
Duch had also enjoyed the broader power structure of the education system that had previously employed him and would do so again after converting to Christianity and, perhaps ironically, within the confines of the ECCC.
Duch appreciated hierarchy, structure and laws, whether it was for Pol Pot, a UN-sanctioned court or the love of Jesus.
In 1999 while working in the remote village of Samlot near Cambodia’s border with Thailand, British photographer Nic Dunlop hitched a ride with Canadian deminers. As they left, he spotted a face from a photo and recognized Duch immediately.
Duch had left the Khmer Rouge a few years earlier, become a born-again Christian and returned to teaching. He was working for the American Refugee Committee under the name Hang Pin when Dunlop approached him.
Dunlop and journalist Nate Thayer met with Duch a handful of times, recording his interviews as he revealed the grisly details of his stewardship at Toul Sleng.
“A Christian convert made him much more interesting,” Dunlop said after Duch was found guilty.
“Being honest with oneself and for the general good is central to being a Christian and Duch’s needs are seen in his position with the Khmer Rouge and later as a Christian.
“I think he is one of those people who requires a structure. He needs a group but I’m not sure that he has the courage of his convictions. I think he has minimalized his individual responsibility while accepting a broader guilt.”
Throughout Case 001, Duch admitted his role and provided great detail about the machinations of the Khmer Rouge. He apologized repeatedly but on occasions he would seek to mitigate his involvement, arguing he was simply following orders and that others, like Nuon Chea, were also responsible.
Then in closing arguments, Duch threw a last-minute spanner into the legal works when he changed his plea of no contest to not guilty and sacked his French lawyer Francois Roux, who had argued that Duch was a decent man before he fell in with Pol Pot.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, spent more than 10 years collating evidence for the tribunal. He said Duch had changed his plea after realizing he could not fool the Cambodian public, the international community or God.
"Had Duch really believed in God, I think that his testimony would have been different. In all his testimonies, there have been reasonings, there have justifications about what happened. There have been calculations on how far and how much he should give and how much he should take back,” he said.
"I think that he tried to fool everyone including God but didn't make it and that's why he resisted in the last minutes. Clearly that informs us that Duch hasn't changed a bit. After all these years, he remains the same S-21 prison chief.”