The Communist jail warden responsible for the deaths of more than 15,000 Cambodians — part of the Khmer Rouge genocide of approximately 1.7 million people — is guilty. He might be incarcerated 19 more years; less if he behaves well, as is expected.
Appropriate punishment against Kaing Guek Eav, known as the Tuol Sleng prison’s Comrade Duch (pronounced Doik), had little chance of implementation and was never going to fit the crimes (especially since the Southeast Asian nation has no death penalty). “Even if we chop him up into two million pieces it will not bring our family members back,” said Huy Vannak, a television news director.
But even with those low expectations, the sentence was a shock to many. “It comes down to serving 11 ½ hours per life that he took, which is just not comprehensible or acceptable,” said Theary Sang, who lost both her parents during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in the late 1970s. Few Cambodians, even today, live without the knowledge (or vivid memories) that parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles were brutally killed or starved to death during Pol Pot’s reign.
Duch received a 35-year sentence, but was credited with the 11 years he’s already served. He also was granted a five-year term reduction because the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia found he was illegally detained before the creation of the war crimes tribunal. According to news reports, judges were also lenient because of contrition he expressed, for accepting responsibility for his crimes, and for cooperation he provided in cases against high-level Khmer Rouge officials that are expected to go to trial next year. They also apparently considered that Duch was part of a criminal system in which disloyalty on his part would have cost him is own life — in other words, he was “following orders.”
But accounts of Duch’s life even before Pol Pot’s rise show he was a dedicated believer in the cause and was willing to inflict unimaginable evils upon fellow countrymen for their dissent, whether real or imagined. Quoting French scholar and former Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) captive Francois Bizot, Yale University historian Ben Kiernan noted:
In his few months’ captivity, Bizot “discovered that Duch believed all Cambodians of differing viewpoints to be traitors and liars, and that he personally beat prisoners who would not tell the ‘truth,’ a matter which drove him into a rage….” A CPK defector who met Duch in either 1972 or 1973 recalled him as “ill-tempered, impatient and doctrinaire.”
The paranoia carried over to Duch’s oversight of Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, the secret Phnom Penh prison where guards administered extreme torture and extracted phony confessions from captives. He described repeatedly during the trial how he was responsible for death and duress, and that no one escaped or was released. Most accounts say that only seven people survived S-21. “The children were separated from their mothers and those children were smashed,” Duch said. “Because they needed the mothers to be separated so they could be interrogated, those children were smashed.”
It was worse — if you can believe it — as Nic Dunlop explained in his extraordinary book about Duch, The Lost Executioner. The convicted jailer’s expectations were well understood and obeyed, as Dunlop discovered in an interview with Ham In, who in 1972 was captive at Duch’s first prison in Amleang, called M-13:
[Ham] never saw Duch give any orders. The guards knew exactly what to do. The prison was well organized and the guards disciplined. Many of them were children of twelve or thirteen, some as young as seven. They were considered more trustworthy than their elders, unpolluted by the old ways. These children had been forcibly separated from their parents and the Organization became their only family. They became fanatical, blind leaders of the revolution, following every order to the letter, no matter how absurd or brutal.
So the stated reasons for leniency by the court were invalid. Duch was as dedicated to the Communist agrarian utopia ideal as any Khmer Rouge. He admitted culpability repeatedly in court and said he deserved severe punishment. And he called into question the sincerity of his remorse by demanding his immediate release on the last day of his trial in November.
But we’re talking about a corrupt Cambodian criminal justice system that was not enhanced by the backing and involvement of the U.N. Also, many former Khmer Rouge (including Prime Minister Hun Sen) serve in the Cambodian government presently. So far only Duch has been tried, while top Pol Pot lieutenants Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Ieng Sirith — all age 78 or older — await indictments maybe at the end of this year. Only recently have they all been arrested and jailed. Even if they survive until trial, which could last years, how serious could the justice be?
Most news articles note Duch’s born-again Christianity, with some suggesting that was part of the reason for an eased sentence. In a largely Buddhist country I doubt that’s the case, but if so, that’s unfortunate. Duch may be welcomed into Heaven because he put his faith in Jesus Christ for the remission of his sins, but that should have no bearing on justice here.
What should be taken from this chapter of evil that will never be requited? Focus on those who God preserved, through miracles and their own resilience. The amazing story of Cam Youk Lim, who saved herself and five children by escaping to the United States via Vietnam and France, is a great place to start. Her son and my friend, Sophal Ear, tells the story. There are many others.