Forgetting and Forgiving

This post begins with a news report from London (via Sunday Herald):

In the past few months, a new “craze” has bowled through London, like no craze as we formerly knew it.  ... This new wheeze, though, is a 21st-Century stormer: it’s called ‘Happy Slapping’. It’s a teenage boy’s sport, it involves technology and it goes like this: boy is excited about having a videophone the price of a second-hand car, boy sees 100 per cent oblivious stranger in a public place (usually much older, male or female), slaps them across the face, videos the horrified reaction and sends it to all his chums, instantaneously becoming the coolest wag alive, and girls want to hang on his every word. ... They’ve contemplated its origins – “from Europe”, apparently – where the sport involves beating up after-hours drunks, filming the event and resulting road-kill and awaiting their peer-judged “score”’.

What if you were one of those slapped in the face?  Would you forget?  Would you forgive?  That depends on what you are made of.

I will do nothing like the deep meditation of forgetting and forgiving in Alain Resnais' Nuit et Brouillard.  My exposure to that film was during my impressionable teenage years and I will never be able to forget, though it was never up to me as a non-Jew to forgive.  And I will also say nothing about whether the Chinese should forget or forgive the Japanese for what occurred during the Sino-Japanese War.

What I would like to do is to use a completely different example to show how forgetting and forgiving is very much a cultural thing.  I am only asking people not to impose their own cultural norms to tell others what they must or must not forget and/or forgive.  I assert that an outsider is not privileged to make that decision.

The principal character in this case is the individual known as Brother Duch.  He was an academic named Kang Keck Ieu before he was placed in charge of the S-21 prison under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during 1975-1978.  You can read about my personal visit to S-21 (aka Tuol Sleng) at this previous post: Cambodia Travel Notes - Part 2 (Tuol Sleng).  As I said, I could have gone to Thailand or Sabah beach resorts instead, but I decided to challenge my own humanity.

The summary statistics for S-21 are:

The number of prisoners by year was as follows:

These figures, totaling 10,499 do not include an estimated 2,000 children.  There are only seven known survivors as the rest were executed at the killing fields (see this previous post Cambodia Travel Notes - Part 3 (Choeung Ek)).

I am going to quote extensively from the book titled Facing Death In Cambodia by Peter Maguire.  First, Maguire was able to interview one of the S-21 survivors, a sculptor named Im Chan.  Chan was arrested with his wife and sent to Tuol Sleng.  Chan's wife was sent to another room and he heard her screams: "'What have I done wrong?  What mistake have I made?  Have pity, I haven't got anyone else, I only live with my husband.'  I didn't hear any more of her."  As for Chan himself, he was tortured for twenty-six days, sometimes three times a day, and asked the same questions over and over: "Do you work for the CIA?" and "Do you work for the KGB?"  Im Chan was slated to be executed, but Brother Duch spared him because he could carve effigies of "Big Brother Number One" Pol Pot.  Chan managed to escape when the Vietnamese came.

About forty minutes into the interview, I tried to get the carver to talk more specifically about the individuals who ran S-21.  I asked him about the infamous Brother Duch.  Again, he seemed irritated, and his response surprised me: "I have a bad memory of Mr. Duch.  I do not want to slander Mr. Duch, I just want to tell the international community that I do not want the Khmer Rouge to come back because I have very bad memories about that."  Im Chan was a reluctant witness, especially compared with survivors I had interviewed.  When he spoke of Brother Duch, he inverted the Nuremberg defense, arguing that the S-21 commandant "only issued the orders" -- implying that because Duch was not a torturer, he was above the law.  Chan made it clear that he believed a vindictive settlement would be a mistake.

Besides the larger geopolitical problems posed by war crimes accountability, there were also important cultural considerations.  Cambodia is a Buddhist country where retribution comes in different forms.  The Buddha did not teach "an eye for an eye"; he, like Im Chan, transcended the simple desire for revenge.  Put simply Buddhists believe that one must break the cycle of vengeance in order to survive.  When I inquired as to the whereabouts of the interrogators and torturers, Chan replied, "Some of them have come back, and I would not like to meet them because I would really like to kill them.  I would like to see them punished."  Then he paused and reconsidered.  "But truly I cannot do like that because I am a Buddhist -- no revenge."  The carver said that he was very angry and would like to say something to Pol Pot, "but I would not know what to say.  The words would be difficult to find to express my anger."

After Im Chan returned to Phnom Penh in 1979, foreign journalists interviewed him and the other survivors.  For a few months he worked at Tuol Sleng Museum, but the strain grew too great, so he quit.  "The prison still makes me feel very bad.  When I see it every day, I remember my ordeal," Chan explained.  I asked the carver if he thought the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide was an important memorial for the Cambodian people.  Did it keep the memory of their national tragedy alive?  Chan's answer shocked me: "I do not want to have a museum like this.  For the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge it is all right, but for the young generation it is bad because they will want revenge and again it will be Khmer against Khmer.  I do not want a museum that keeps anger and bad memories alive -- Khmers will be against Khmers."

Talking about his memories was not easy for Im Chan, but he was very lucid as he described the pain that the recent past continued to cause him: "Every year during national celebration they invited me to the microphone to make a speech about the bad memories.  I did it every year for a while."  Again he paused; it was obvious that my questioning had taken him back to a troubling place.  His next line was nearly his last: "But every time I went [speak], I lost some of my life -- I shortened my life.  At the time I felt very bad that it was shortening my life.  I would like to forget all of this; I do not want to remember.  I would like to forget, so I never wrote my story.  Many journalists came to meet me, but I never wanted to meet them.  I only did it this time because of the museum director."

I turned off the tape recorder.  We thanked Mr. Chan and quietly left.

Of course, you must be interested as to how Brother Duch met the hand of God.  Here is Peter Maguire again:

One of the strangest episodes in the Khmer Rouge breakup was the emergence of S-21 prison commandant Brother Duch.  The former teacher who had overseen the systematic torture and executions of at least 14,000 people was living in Battambang and had become an evangelical Christian.  Baptized by American Pacific College missionaries in 1996, Duch now worked for an NGO called the American Refugee Committee.  British journalist Nic Dunlop had been fascinated by Duch and for many years carried Duch's picture whenever he traveled to Cambodia.  When Dunlop saw a familiar-looking buck-toothed, rabbit-eared man in a village near Samlot in 1999, he was almost certain it was the former Tuol Sleng commandant.  Duch introduced himself to Dunlop in English and said that he was a former schoolteacher from Phnom Penh named Hang Pin.  The Englishman returned to Bangkok and traveled back to Samlot a week later with American journalist Nate Thayer to help him verify the man's identity.

The reporters found "Hang Pin" in the same village, and when he began to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, Thayer cut the sermon short: "I believe that you also worked with the security services during the Khmer Rouge period?"  At first, "Hang Pin" tried to deny the charge, but he soon broke down: "It's God's will that you are here.  Now my future is in God's hands."  Unlike Pol Pot and the rest of the former Khmer Rouge leaders, Brother Duch admitted his guilt.  "My unique fault is that I did not serve God, I served men, I served communism.  I feel very sorry about the killings and the past.  I wanted to be a good communist."  When the journalist presented Duch with a memo he'd written, authorizing an interrogator to torture a prisoner to death, he apologized: "I am sorry.  The people who died were good people ... there were many who were innocent."  The former S-21 commandant admitted, "Whoever was arrested must die.  It was the rule of the party."  Duch said that he had had "great difficulty in my life, thinking that the people who died did nothing wrong."

One American Refugee Committee official was flabbergasted when Duch's identity was revealed to him before Dunlop and Thayer reported it in their respective newspapers in April 1999.  "We are in a state of shock frankly.  He was our best worker, highly respected in the community, clearly very intelligent and dedicated to helping the refugees."  Duch accepted his fate, admitted his guilt, and took responsibility for his actions: "I have done bad things before in my life.  Now it is time for les reprisals."  Duch's pastor, Christopher LaPel, remarked: "Duch is so brave to say 'I did wrong, I accept punishment.'  The Christian spirit has filled him to his heart.  Now, he is free from fear.  He is free -- not like Khieu Samphan or Nuon Chea, or other top leaders."  Many Cambodians were confused by this western religion that appeared to allow for an absolution of horrible transgressions.  A Cambodian working for another Christian NGO, fired for crashing a company car, observed: "That wall [into which I crashed] was fixed in one week.  I was broke and they fired me.  But Duch, he killed thousands and they forgive him.  I don't get it."

Do you get it?

Yesterday, an article appeared in the International Herald Tribune about China's involvement with the Khmer Rouge.  I should note that the United States was no better, as it too supported the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot:

(IHT)  Burying China's complicity in the killing fields.  By Jehangir S. Pocha.  May 3, 2005.

Outside this stark, but pastoral monument to the victims of Cambodia's gory Khmer Rouge years southwest of Phnom Penh, a group of young men played cards recently and listened to Chinese pop music.

Music from China seemed a bit incongruous, given that China, along with the United States and the Soviet Union, helped create Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Beijing, indeed, was the group's chief patron when it held power from 1975 through 1978 and killed more than 1.7 million people, a quarter of Cambodia's population, in its quest to create an agrarian Maoist utopia.

But China's role in this nation's grim experience now lies in the past - deep and more or less undisturbed, which is how both Beijing and many Cambodians prefer it.

"The Chinese are O.K.; they are our friends now," said Var Sareth, 21. "We can learn from them; we can work with them."  Var Sareth and his companions work as guides at the Cheung Ek monument, which is on the site of a Khmer Rouge labor camp 15 kilometers, or 9 miles from the capital, and is filled with the skulls of 8,000 people who perished there.  Though they diligently tell tourists about the shrine and how tall its dome is, they refrain, even when pressed, from talking about China's role in the events that led to Cambodia's killing fields.  Pan Samnang, 24, who sells postcards and other memorabilia to tourists, said that he could not dislike China because "all the businesses started by people in my family" recently have been bankrolled by Chinese money.

Indeed, China has emerged as a major supporter of Cambodia, after an ambitious $2.8 billion UN peacekeeping operation meant to help Cambodia get back on its feet ended in November 1993. Beijing has pumped nearly $300 million in aid into Cambodia since then, and last year, Chinese businesses invested $217 million in Cambodian industries like timber, textiles, and food processing, making China the largest foreign investor in Cambodia, according to the Center for the Development of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh.  That would have been "unbelievable" a decade ago, said Var Sareth. Back then, emotions over China's support of the Khmer Rouge were still raw.

China saw the Khmer Rouge "as a zealous national movement toppling a regime propped up by the U.S. and gave it very close support," said Sophie Richardson, who recently completed a dissertation at the University of Virginia, on Chinese-Cambodian relations. Beijing, which did not want the Soviet Union expanding into its backyard, supplied the Khmer Rouge with arms, food, material, training, technicians and, most important, international political support.

"Without China, the Khmer Rouge might never have become what it did," Richardson said.

When Pol Pot seized Phnom Penh in 1975, the city was emptied of people. They were sent to work in what became Cambodia's killing fields.  

"My husband died in fields, and my two boys were poisoned while working in a children's work team," said Mam Sophon, 58, a midwife at Angkor Chey Referral Hospital in Kampot province, about 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, southwest of Phnom Penh.  "My daughter was forced to carry rice all day and finally collapsed. They said blood came out from her mouth, and buttocks from overwork."

Richardson said, "The Chinese knew a lot, if not all, of what was going on, but they were not joking when they said 'domestic affairs are domestic affairs.' No matter how awful the Khmer Rouge regime got, the Chinese said they did not think it was their place to intervene."

China's non-interference policy largely continues to this day. China opposed UN economic sanctions against Sudan, where it has oil interests.  "Business is business," Zhou Wenzhong said last year when he was China's deputy foreign minister. "The situation in the Sudan is an internal affair."

The implications of China's position on the Khmer Rouge are set aside by many young Cambodians born after the Khmer Rouge years, who compose about half the country's population.  "To repair my life I need this," said Var Sareth, holding up the two crumpled U.S. dollar bills his previous client had handed him after a 30-minute tour. "China is China. We are small. To go forward we must look forward, not keep looking back."

Yet in families scarred by Cambodia's brutal civil war, which intensified when the United States began covertly bombing the country as part of its Vietnam campaign, the promise of money can be an inadequate balm.  "No one has paid for my loss," said Mam Sophon, as tears welled at the memory. "We will remember these bad things forever" if there is no public explanation of how and why all this happened.

Like many people in Cambodia, Mam Sophon is careful to clarify that her Buddhist beliefs direct her to seek only truth, not vengeance, from those who directly and indirectly tormented her life and nation. While this exchange of absolution for honesty has been partly satisfied by disclosures about Washington's role in supporting the Khmer Rouge, and Cambodia's own impending trial of senior Khmer Rouge leaders before a tribunal backed by the United Nations, China has remained mostly silent about its role in the violence that ravaged this idyllic country.

"China does not have to take responsibility for the Khmer Rouge's domestic policy and has no responsibility to explain what China did at that time," said Professor Zhang Xi Zhen of the Asian Studies Department at Peking University, in Beijing. "Our leaders, from Zhou Enlai to advisers in Phnom Penh, tried to persuade them to change these kind of policies. They just didn't listen."

China, as well as the United States, Britain, Singapore,and Thailand, continued supporting the Khmer Rouge even after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and put an end to the devastation Pol Pot's regime had unleashed. 

"To help the Khmer Rouge, China even launched the border war against Vietnam" in 1979, Zhang said. "It might seem hard to understand today, but don't forget that at that time Vietnam was very close to the Soviet Union and together they wanted to control South-East Asia. That would have been a grave threat to China."  Zhang said the combination of China's own revolutionary zeal and its ambitions to become a great power might have blinded it in Cambodia.

While China did not commit the Khmer Rouge crimes, its reluctance to discuss its support may seem to run counter to the recent admonishing of Japan by Premier Wen Jiabao of China, who said nations must "face up to history" if they want to be full and normal members of the global community. But despite the inconsistency, Beijing is not likely to budge, said Jin Linbo, director of Asia Pacific Studies at the China Institute of Foreign Studies in Beijing.  "I don't think Chinese leaders are ready to reflect fully on China's actions and history," Jin said.

(AP)  Head of Cambodian torture center takes stand in tribunal's first public session.  November 21, 2007.

The head of the Khmer Rouge's largest and most notorious torture center took the stand yesterday in the first public session of the long-delayed UN-backed tribunal probing the regime's reign of terror in the 1970s.  Relaxed and exceedingly polite, Kaing Guek Eav -- alias Duch -- was escorted by guards into a packed courtroom for a pretrial hearing to seek bail ahead of trials scheduled to begin next year.

Duch, 66, charged with crimes against humanity, took the witness stand dressed in a white polo shirt and stood up when asked to tell the court his name. He then brought his palms together in a sign of respect for the five-judge panel.  A presiding judge read aloud from Duch's case file: "Under his authority, countless abuses were committed, including mass murder, arbitrary detention and torture."

Hundreds of journalists, international observers and Cambodians crowded the tribunal's compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to witness the event.

"This is historic," said 58-year-old Sin Khor, whose husband and two brothers died during the Khmer Rouge reign.  "Thirty years have passed. But what happened then remains alive for me," she said.

Duch, who became a born-again Christian and aid worker in the 1990s, is one of five senior officials of the brutal regime to be taken in custody ahead of the genocide trial.  Duch was charged in July with crimes against humanity for his role as the head of the regime's infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21, in Phnom Penh. Up to 16,000 men, women and children were tortured there from 1975 to 1979 and then taken away to be executed. Only 14 inmates are believed to have survived.  He was arrested on May 10, 1999 and held in a Cambodian prison on war crime charges.

When asked the reason for his appeal, Duch rose and replied: "Because I had been detained for more than eight years without trial."  His defense attorney told the court that Duch should "have freedom immediately."  A ruling was not expected for several days.

(NYROB)    Cambodia's Perfect War Criminal     Stéphanie Giry    October 25, 2010.

The July conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch—the gaunt-faced, fever-eyed 68-year-old head of the Khmer Rouge’s leading torture center—by a special UN–Cambodian criminal court has been seen as a breakthrough in international justice. Years in the making, the trial was the first international criminal case brought against an official of the Pol Pot regime since a Vietnamese show trial in 1979. And despite mixed legal procedures, the conflicting approaches of Cambodian and international lawyers, hearings in three languages, budget shortages, corruption scandals, and political pressure, it was widely considered fair. Yet it is unclear how much the Duch case will have advanced the long-delayed efforts for justice against the Khmer Rouge, not least because Duch himself seems to have come out of the experience less repentant than he was when it began.

For his part in overseeing the torture and execution of at least 12,273 prisoners, Duch was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to a 35-year prison term, with 19 years left to serve. But after spending much of the 77 days of court hearings expressing remorse, he is now appealing the sentence and asking to be released, claiming that he was neither one of the regime’s leaders nor among those “most responsible” for the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, the only people the special court in Phnom Penh is entitled to try. This request reflects a dramatic last-minute shift in the defense’s strategy, from cooperating with the court to disputing its authority to judge Duch. That Duch could undermine the trial and its outcome in this way highlights its central flaw: all along, he was allowed to dominate the telling, and so influence the judging, of his own crimes.

From the moment the hearings began, in April 2009, François Roux, Duch’s French lawyer and a veteran of international criminal courts, built a canny defense around a story of redemption (an approach that Duch’s second lawyer, the Cambodian Kar Savuth, seemed to share initially). Yes, Duch had signed up for a revolution and had sinned in its name, Roux argued, but he had also acted in terror of a paranoid regime; Duch had been both “a servant and a hostage” of the Khmer Rouge. Now, he was atoning for his crimes and asking for forgiveness—or better yet, for the possibility that he might be forgiven one day. Duch would cooperate with the court and tell the victims’ families all that he knew about what their lost relatives had endured. In exchange, Roux asked them, the judges, and the audience to allow Duch “back into humanity.”

That was a lot to ask considering that the court’s own count of Duch’s victims was conservative. Historians estimate that as many as 20,000 may have been killed at S-21, a secret prison set up to extract confessions from Khmer Rouge enemies—mostly suspected traitors among party cadres—and then to eliminate them. In order to draw attention away from the pulled nails and the force-feeding of feces, the waterboarding and the bleedings that Duch had overseen there, Roux framed the debate instead around Duch’s moral reconstruction, casting him as a tragic figure trapped by circumstances he has since repudiated.

It helped that the trial’s first witness was François Bizot, a French ethnographer briefly detained at and released from M-13, a jungle prison and precursor of S-21 that Duch ran in the early 1970s. Bizot was the rare case of a prisoner freed and of a prisoner unusually empathetic toward his captor, and Roux deployed him as a court expert on torturer-saviors and all manner of gray areas. Bizot’s judgment of Duch was by no means kind—“There is, it seems to me, no forgiveness possible”—but his nuanced testimony gave Roux a chance to retrieve his client from beyond the pale. “I felt that [Duch’s] crime was the crime of a man,” Bizot told the judges, “and that its abomination should be measured not by treating Duch like a monster but by rehabilitating, or rather recognizing in him, the humanity that is his, as much as it is ours.”

Roux sought to bring out Duch’s psychological complexity by making him tell a harrowing story about Sok, a young prostitute detained at M-13 on suspicions that she was a spy. Duch had set out to torture her by exposing her, drenched, to cold winds. But the experiment failed: she didn’t confess. Moreover, the sight of her clothes clinging to her body had stirred him, he said to the court, sparking fears that his staff might abuse her sexually and that such a slip-up could bring tough, perhaps lethal, sanctions from his superiors. When Duch was ordered to have Sok executed, he obliged.

“What do you have to say today?” Roux asked. “At the time, under that regime, there was no alternative but to respect party discipline,” Duch answered. To contain his emotion at such moments, he added, he would recite the closing verses of the nineteenth-century French poet Alfred de Vigny’s “Death of the Wolf”:

Weeping or praying—all this is in vain.
Shoulder your long and energetic task,
The way that Destiny sees fit to ask,
Then suffer and so die without complaint.

A week into the hearings, Roux had managed to cast Duch in the role of pained, and now penitent, executioner.

Duch played the part well. Before the trial, he guided the investigating judges through reams of execution orders and prisoners’ confessions, deciphering notes and identifying handwriting; he explained S-21’s organization and its relation to the Khmer Rouge leadership—ammunition for a second trial against four top officials, which is expected to begin next spring. In court, Duch was unfailingly attentive, well-informed, and meticulous. During one early hearing, hunched over a copy of the indictment, a yellow highlighter in hand, he listened without flinching to the crushing enumeration of 238 uncontested allegations about atrocities committed on his watch: “S-21 was set up to ‘smash’ political opponents,” “a child was thrown from the third floor.” Even though every flick of his wrist seemed to be an admission of guilt, his self-possession somehow exuded authority.

Soon, he was correcting shoddy, sometimes appalling, translations by court interpreters: he had “ascertained” this fact or that, not “seen it with his own eyes.” He was obsequious with the judges (“Thank you for asking this question”) while condescending to the lawyers (When an especially emotive one asked, “Do you not understand my questions?” he responded, with a smile, “Maybe you don’t understand my answers.”) One day, he called into question the identity of one Ly Hor, who claimed to have been a prisoner at S-21: “If one compares the handwriting in document 00279927 to this one, the two are 50 percent different. Therefore, I estimate that comrade Ear Hor and Mr. Ly Hor are not the same person.” QED. Once a model math teacher, then a model interrogator and prison warden, Duch was now a model defendant.

In contrast, the performance of other participants in the trial was often feeble. The prosecutors kept changing and generally seemed underprepared. They relied on materials gathered by NGOS and journalists more than on their own investigations; once, to prove the widely known fact of S-21’s enforced squalor, they tried to present footage from a feature film. Lawyers representing the victims and the victims’ relatives who joined the case as civil parties grilled S-21 guards and interrogators called in as witnesses as though it was they who were on trial, not Duch. (In fact, such low-level officials did not exercise enough authority under the Khmer Rouge to fall within the mandate of the tribunal.) As a result, these valuable sources clammed up, disclosing far less about Duch than they knew.

That left Duch often seeming like he was in command. At no time was this more evident than in his handling of Mam Nai, S-21’s chief interrogator and perhaps the trial’s most important witness. About half-way through the trial, in July 2009, Mam Nai was called to testify about the torture of Phung Ton, the dean of Phnom Penh University, a former professor of Mam Nai’s and Duch’s, and the only S-21 prisoner about whom Duch had ever choked up in court. The unusual-looking Mam Nai, very tall and almost albino, wearing mittens in the sticky heat, spent a day and a half not remembering, equivocating, and lying in the face of incontrovertible documents and his own earlier statements. (Roux had something to do with this, having repeatedly reminded Mam Nai of his right to remain silent if he feared incriminating himself.) Then came Duch’s time to comment on his testimony. Duch stood up, in a bone-white polo shirt and high-riding dark slacks, and announced, pointlessly it seemed, that back in the day he had preferred another of his assistants. Then, cleaving the air with his mangled, four-fingered left hand, he began to scold Mam Nai: “We are here being judged by history, and one cannot cover up an elephant with a basket. So don’t try!”

Spotting the opening, the lawyer for Phung Ton’s family invited Mam Nai to “elaborate” on his earlier answer. Unshakeable until then, he started to weep. “I would like to express my regretfulness to the family of Professor Phung Ton,” Mam Nai said, wiping his face with a checkered krama. But he would say nothing more about what had happened to the professor, claiming, unconvincingly, that to try would be “like shooting in a dark night.” A blow to Phung Ton’s wife and daughter, who were in court, this was an ideal outcome for Duch: he got to look like a truth-teller without having to do any telling himself or being exposed by someone else’s.

Even more disturbing, Duch’s dismissal of Mam Nai demonstrated that his talents as an interrogator endured. Withdrawing approval, shaming, intimidation—the skills Duch used against Mam Nai are what had gotten him into the defendant’s box in the first place. In the days of S-21, these tactics had allowed him to wrest confessions from desperate detainees; in court, they ensured that nothing would be extracted from him. The more he claimed to admit, the more he managed to avoid.

Duch’s blanket acknowledgments of responsibility worked in much the same way. He liked to repeat that while he hadn’t tortured or killed anyone himself, he was responsible for ordering his subordinates to do so. And the more he said this, the more, by implication, he was indicting his own superiors for the orders they had given him. By September 2009, as the hearings were wrapping up, self-indictment had come to sound like evasion.

Then came the baffling turnabout. In late November, during closing arguments, Duch’s Cambodian lawyer, Kar Savuth, himself a former prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, abruptly asked for Duch’s release. Because Duch was not among “those most responsible,” Kar Savuth claimed, he should be set free. Roux was stunned. The objection should have been raised months earlier, and it torpedoed the defense that he had built around Duch’s contrition. The break, however, was final: citing a “loss of confidence,” Duch sacked Roux a few months later, just weeks before the verdict.

The request for Duch’s release was a gamble, as it could cast doubt on the sincerity of his professed willingness to be held accountable. And it did, though with little consequence. In their verdict of late July, the judges—three Cambodians, two internationals—did call Duch’s expression of remorse “limited” but nonetheless shaved five years off his prison term to reward him for cooperating. Duch’s version of events also carried the day on many contested factual points, including how many prisoners had been bled to death (“at least 100,” Duch’s estimate), whether he had ever attended any executions (some witnesses said yes; he said no), and how much torturing he did himself (none, that could established).

This was probably as good an outcome as Duch could have hoped for. But why risk much worse by asking to be set free? Duch—or was it Kar Savuth?—seemed to be playing a longer game. Rumors started circulating that Kar Savuth was setting the stage for an early release a few years into Duch’s sentence. Certainly, Duch and Kar Savuth, who has also acted as a legal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, seemed to be opening a side conversation with the authorities. Last summer, Duch hired a second Cambodian attorney to replace Roux, turning the defense team into an all-Cambodian affair, presumably the better to wash the Khmer Rouge’s dirty laundry in private.

This must have been a welcome signal to the Cambodian government, which has been wary of these trials from the beginning and has been quietly exerting pressure to limit their scope. Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge (though one who defected early enough to be safe from prosecution today), has acted testily about them, sometimes even threateningly. When last year the Canadian co-prosecutor Robert Petit began eyeing six more suspects, including two army generals, in addition to Duch and the four Khmer Rouge leaders who will be tried next year, Hun Sen warned that further indictments could trigger civil war. The Cambodian co-prosecutor got the hint and opposed expanding the investigations. (Petit eventually quit.) Hun Sen also recently backed six sitting officials—two ministers, two senators, and the presidents of the senate and the national assembly—when they refused to answer the court’s summons to testify for the upcoming leaders’ trial.

Kar Savuth sounded a curious echo to these rumblings from the government when he first called for Duch’s release last November. To single out Duch as the only mid-level officer worth trying would amount to scapegoating, he argued, and since the government would not allow anyone else to be prosecuted, he intimated, Duch must be released. Thus by the trial’s close, implausibly, the Cambodian government, the Cambodian prosecutor, and the Cambodian defense were making common cause.

It was a singular outcome. As the first serious legal reckoning with the Khmer Rouge’s mass killings, Duch’s trial was a milestone. Yet with Duch able to manipulate the proceedings to his advantage, and all the external political maneuvering to limit the court’s reach, the case may ultimately have revealed as much about the dark dealings of Cambodia’s current leaders as about the cruelties of Pol Pot’s rule.

(The Atlantic)  The Eccentricity of Evil: A Khmer Rouge Leader Goes on Trial    Julia Wallace, April 12, 2011.

If a courtroom is a theater, the star of the show at Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal for the past two years has been a gaunt and balding former math teacher whose favorite word to describe himself is "meticulous."

Kaing Guek Eav, best known by the revolutionary alias Duch, is also a war criminal and mass killer. He has freely admitted he was responsible for the murder of over 12,000 people as head of the Khmer Rouge secret police and commandant of the S-21 security center, where perceived enemies of the regime were sent to be tortured into submission and "smashed." Over two years and ten months at the helm of the notorious prison, Comrade Duch ordered his captives to be waterboarded, their genitals electrocuted, and their toenails pulled out before sending nearly all of them, blindfolded, to be stabbed in the neck or clubbed to death in a field outside of Phnom Penh.

The case initially looked like a slam dunk -- a simple trial that could be wrapped up fast, initiating a cathartic national discussion in a country that was mired in civil war with the Khmer Rouge until 1998. The evidence against Duch, after all, was overwhelming: when the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh in January 1979, Duch--a compulsive record-keeper -- left behind thousands of forced confessions that he had annotated in red ink: "beat her 40 times with the rattan stick," "medical experiment," "smash them to pieces." In the confessions, known as "autobiographies," Duch's prisoners inevitably admit to being agents of the KGB, CIA or the Vietnamese government and to having undermined the regime's radical plans for agricultural productivity and social harmony. The documents are mesmerizing today for their utter implausibility (one 19-year-old nurse, after being tortured, claimed the CIA had sent her on a mission to defecate in the operating theater of a Phnom Penh military hospital).

It was partly because of this extensive evidence that the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal--established in 2006 to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime and "those most responsible" for crimes committed under it--decided to prosecute Duch first. The regime's four top living leaders--including "Brother Number 2" Nuon Chea and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary--remain in jail awaiting the beginning of their own trial this summer. They are all older and frailer than Duch, further removed from the killings, and far less contrite, having largely denied the accusations against them.

Duch's trial, which unfolded over the course of nine months in 2009, at first proceeded smoothly. Following a strategy devised by Francois Roux, his French defense lawyer and an experienced practitioner of judicial stagecraft, Duch apologized to his victims dozens of times, sometimes in dramatically self-lacerating fashion.

Under Roux's tutelage, Duch cried in court, made a tearful pilgrimage to the Killing Fields, and even--after an extended and theatrical courtroom dialogue with his lawyer--invited victims to visit him in his jail cell. It was an elaborate defense modeled on the precedent of Albert Speer--the Nazi architect who escaped a death sentence at Nuremberg because of his acceptance of moral responsibility.

Throughout the trial, Duch systematically upstaged everyone with his extraordinarily active participation in his own defense, and his odd zeal for setting the record straight, even at his own expense. Never deviating from a math-teacherish uniform of slacks and button-down shirts, he offered the court extensive commentary and analysis on his own life and character, and at times made helpful corrections -- serving variously as historian, analyst, mathematician, expert witness, character witness and trial monitor.

Nearly every day he would rise, clutching a binder full of the court documents and mimeographed S-21 confessions he had been poring over, to highlight inaccuracies in witness testimony, correct the courtroom translators, or admonish lawyers for repetitive questioning. He frequently recited eight-digit documentation ID numbers from memory, while some lawyers struggled to produce the numbers at all.

Inexact figures seemed to irk him in particular. When a prosecutor referred to a length of time as "26 or 27 years," Duch retorted, "Could you please make a proper mathematical calculation?" Earlier, he told judges that had selected his revolutionary name from a children's book about a very obedient child called Duch. "I liked the name Duch because I wanted to be a well-disciplined boy who respected the teachers, who wanted to do good deeds," he said. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

Duch explained to the court that he was chosen to be a prison chief because of his ability "to pay attention to whatever I was assigned to do meticulously." "In my entire life, if I do something I'll do it properly," he said.

The Open Society Justice Initiative wrote in a report on the trial, "Duch's behavior at trial again displayed a desire to be seen as exceedingly cooperative with the court, as if he were attempting to exchange his old role with that of the perfect defendant." A particularly telling moment, the report continued, "occurred when Duch thanked expert David Chandler for praising his professionalism in running S-21, seemingly still believing that professionalism in the running of a torture and execution camp was a high compliment."

Out of hundreds of hours of testimony from prison survivors, experts, and Duch himself, a clear and unnerving portrait of him emerged: this killer of thousands was, above all else, a good student. It seems to have been this quality, rather than greed or blood lust or even pure revolutionary fervor, that drove him to manage operations at S-21 so carefully, so meticulously, that only a handful of prisoners survived.

That's why everyone was stunned when, on the 77th and last day of his trial, Duch took on the most unlikely role of all: the bad student.

When called upon to give a final statement, he abruptly abandoned Roux's strategy of remorse and, and instead demanded that the court release and acquit him. Duch's behavior and public statements up to this point had been as good as a guilty plea, and his trial had seemed to be headed toward a predictable ending: a commuted sentence in exchange for cooperation, contrition and conversation.

But instead of apologizing once again to his victims, he launched into a dry, technical discourse on the history of the Communist Party in Cambodia and its leaders--which did not include him. He said that as he was not a senior leader he could not have been "most responsible" for crimes committed at S-21. He asked to be acquitted in the name of national reconciliation--the favored buzzword here for the process of integrating former Khmer Rouge cadres into Cambodian society.

Stunned judges asked him to clarify his statement. He obeyed: "I would like the chamber to release me."

Duch subsequently fired Roux and tried to replace him with a Chinese lawyer who understood Communism (Defendants at the tribunal, which is jointly administered by the Cambodian government and the UN, have the right to one local and one international lawyer). When a Chinese defender could not be procured, he engaged a second Cambodian. Together, the new defense team has pursued a one-note legal strategy: insisting over and over again that Duch was a mid-level cadre and therefore should not be prosecuted.

In July 2010, the tribunal found Duch guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 35 years in prison. (Due to mitigating circumstances and time served, he will spend less than 19 years in jail; prosecutors have called this figure "manifestly inadequate.")

Late last month, appeal hearings were held, bringing Duch before the court once again. Reading from copious handwritten notes and once again deftly reciting long strings of document ID numbers, he argued on his behalf better than his own bumbling lawyers, urging judges to release him "for the sake of national reconciliation among my people."

"You justice and truth for the Cambodian people as well as for the former Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres, especially the middle class who do not fall within the jurisdiction of this tribunal," he concluded.

It was a poor legal argument, but one that was cleverly phrased to echo the government's stance on the tribunal: that, in the name of national reconciliation, no further prosecutions will be allowed to take place, period. Hun Sen, Cambodia's strongman prime minister, who was himself a Khmer Rouge cadre before internal purges prompted him to flee to Vietnam in 1977, announced in 2009 that more trials could revive the civil war and kill "200,000 to 300,000 people."

Although United Nations prosecutors have identified five additional suspects they would like to see tried for genocide and war crimes, those cases have been stalled in the tribunal's investigation chamber, hindered by the fact that Cambodian staff refuse to participate in them. Court observers say the cases are likely to be dismissed soon.

Out of paranoia or pride, the government has also refused to allow several top officials who are former mid-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge to give evidence before the tribunal, although none of them has been implicated in crimes. Hun Sen flatly told visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in October that no new trials would be permitted. Neither Mr Ban nor the international community, which funds the court's multi-million dollar budget, seemed to particularly care.

Because of all this behind-the-scenes political wrangling, Duch's dramatic change of stance has raised persistent whispers that he may now be taking orders from someone else--especially since his lead Cambodian counsel, Kar Savuth, also happens to be Hun Sen's family lawyer. But a large part of his turnabout can likely be attributed to his idiosyncratic personality. With his penchant for calculation, astonishing head for detail, and incapacity to process human emotion, he often comes across as mildly autistic. Decades after he committed his crimes, Duch is still unable to understand how the behaviors he values most--dedication to a higher cause, unfailing obedience to superiors, and pride in a job well done--can be entirely wrong.

Given his defiant new stance, his victims are unlikely to get the contrition they seek. But thanks to Duch¹s loquacity throughout the trial, and his obsession with getting the facts right, Cambodia and the world have gleaned not just a fuller understanding of the machinery of death he headed, but also a portrait of one brutal regime's slavishly obedient, ferociously meticulous executioner.