Khmer Rouge Prison Torturers Finally Put On Trial

03/19/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Beneath the shade of spreading branches in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng prison, Chum Mei slipped off his sandals and demonstrated how Khmer Rouge torturers had pulled out his toenails. "They beat me seriously," he said quietly, sitting on the floor as tourists wandered past, unaware of his story. "I tried to protect my face and they broke my finger. They kept repeating the same question: was I working for the CIA? They pulled out my toenails. Then they used electricity to shock me through my ear. And then I went unconscious."

Forty years ago, the black-clad cadres of the Khmer Rouge swept to power in Cambodia and set in motion a genocidal programme that left up to 1.7 million of its people dead. Tomorrow, after what seems like an eternity of struggle, the trial will finally begin of some of those senior figures who headed one of the 20th century's most brutal regimes.

First in the dock for committing crimes against humanity is Kaing Khek Lew, also known as Comrade Duch, the spindly former school teacher and head of Tuol Sleng prison where Chum Mei and so many others were brought to be questioned, tortured and dispatched for execution. Of an estimated 14,000 people sent to Duch's jail, established in a secondary school in Phnom Penh, barely a dozen survived. Today, just six are alive. Chum Mei is among them, and he is expected to give evidence at the trial, operated jointly by the Cambodian government and the UN.

Tuol Sleng was central both to the Khmer Rouge's killing machine and the legacy of the Maoist-inspired regime that has reverberated down the years. There were other prisons equally brutal, some larger. But Tuol Sleng, now a museum of the macabre, has come to represent the regime's horrors. Every day, tourists from around the world step quietly through the prison blocks that are haunted by history.

On a recent afternoon, Mr Mei led the way through the classrooms full of bones and skulls, past photographs of more than 5,000 former prisoners, who would end up being executed, usually at "killing fields" on the city's outskirts at an orchard called Choeung Ek. The 78-year-old, once a car mechanic, stopped next to a photograph of half-a-dozen emaciated men standing at the gate of the jail and pointed to the pencil-thin figure in baggy-fitting fatigues. That was him. The shot was taken 30 years ago when the jail was emptied in the face of an invasion by Vietnamese forces that ousted the Khmer Rouge from power.

We move on to the tiny brick cell where he was shackled. "For me, the trial is very important," he says, "I need justice for Cambodia. I want the international community to find justice for Cambodia."

Bou Meng is also a survivor. He, like many other ordinary citizens, joined the Khmer Rouge revolution after a coup that ousted Cambodia's prime minister, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. But he ended up in Tuol Sleng after being denounced by a colleague as a traitor. To this day, the 68-year-old has no idea who denounced him or why.

"They beat me with all sorts of instruments, sticks and electric shocks," he said, "I still have the scars across my back." Sitting next to him in the restaurant garden as he talks is his second wife; his first was killed after she was sent to Tuol Sleng with him.

Mr Meng survived the prison, known as S-21, because, six months after he was taken there, Duch learnt that he was a painter. Handed paper and pencil, he was ordered to sketch. He was then handed a photograph of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and told to make a copy. Mr Meng did so, wisely deciding to ignore an unsightly mark on the regime leader's throat. Duch told him they wanted him to paint four large pictures. He said each painting would take three months. "That is the only reason I am still alive," he said. "They left me alone to do the job. It was one year, and then the Vietnamese invaded and it was that which saved my life."

Mr Meng will also give evidence against Duch. "The most important thing about the trial is finding justice for the prisoners," he added. "More than 14,000 prisoners were killed, including my wife. I will feel relieved if Duch is convicted. The soul of my wife will be peaceful."

The process to bring to trial Duch and his co-accused - the Khmer Rouge second-in-command, Nuon Chea; the former foreign minister Ieng Sary; the former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith; and the former head of state Khieu Samphan - has been difficult. Duch was arrested in 1999 when he was discovered by a journalist, working for a Western aid group in the north of Cambodia and having converted to Christianity.

Quite what Duch's position will be when the case begins is unclear. His defence team declined to answer whether their client will plead guilty or not guilty. In several interviews, Duch has admitted ordering the deaths of countless prisoners but claimed he had no option. "Whoever was arrested must die. This was the rule of our party," he told Nic Dunlop, the journalist who found Duch, and wrote The Lost Executioner. Yet the court has made clear that for a defendant to claim they were just following orders will not constitute a defence.

Helen Jarvis, a spokeswoman for the so-called Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) blamed the long process on "geopolitics", meaning some countries in the world have been pushing for the $150m trial more than others. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, many countries, including Britain and the US, continued to support them in a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed administration in Phnom Penh. Ms Jarvis, in her office at the specially-constructed court complex beyond Phnom Penh's airport, said: "[The trial] is important. It is the international community saying that something serious happened here."

Yet the trial process has already been controversial. Many Cambodians are disappointed that only five Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged, and one of the two joint prosecutors has argued there should be more defendants. His co-prosecutor, who is Cambodian, believes it is better to concentrate on just these five, repeating an often-heard comment that extending the scope of the trial too far could be counter-productive.

Indeed, there have long been whispers that the Cambodian government had dragged its feet over the trial process to protect former Khmer Rouge officials now in senior positions within the administration. Just two weeks ago, the present Foreign Minister, Hor Namhong, won a defamation case in a French court over a book that claimed he was once a senior Khmer Rouge commander.

Yet the reluctance to extend the remit of the court may have more practical reasons. In Cambodia, where the grip of the Khmer Rouge was so complete, anyone over the age of 45 is, in effect, either a survivor of the regime, or else an accomplice. As a result, there are limits to how many cases can be dealt with. Some also argue it is better to proceed against these senior leaders before they die awaiting trial, because some have already died.

Many believe the process is essential if Cambodia is to move on. Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a remarkable project that has collected testimony from thousands of victims and former regime members. "This is a process that can be utilised ... to put this behind us, to help restore our identity and move on," he said. "You cannot try everybody. That is why it is important to try the senior leaders."

Yet it is possible the trial will provide more questions that answers. For many years, Cambodia has lived with its dark history, become intertwined with it. In some respects the country's history has become akin to an industry, for NGOs, for tourists, academics, writers, films such as The Killing Fields. The fancy Foreign Correspondents Club restaurant in Phnom Penh may never have been a genuine press club but today it lures tourists with the frisson of the past and a chance to enjoy the sunset and buy prints by the war photographer, Al Rockoff.

Yet less focus has centred on the question "why". Historians can plot the rise of the Khmer Rouge, detailing the role of the massive US bombing campaign in turning people against the Western-backed government and in building support for the Maoists, but less has been written to explain how the regime's brutal behaviour could have been enacted so casually. Some Cambodians have the courage to say they do not condemn those involved and question how they themselves might have acted if a gun was held to their head and they were ordered to torture and kill. When Duch takes the stand, will he be judged as the face of pure evil or else as someone caught up in the dark forces of history?

Two hours south of Phnom Penh, on a road that heads to the Vietnamese border and Ho Chi Minh city, lies Preykun village. In a simple raised house fashioned from teak and split bamboo lives Him Huy. Today, the 53-year-old is a farmer but between 1976 and 1978 he was a senior guard at Tuol Sleng. He admits to killing five people, though some witnesses suggest he was involved in many more deaths.

Him Huy recalled taking trucks of blindfolded prisoners to Choeung Ek, ordering them to kneel down and then killing them with a blow of a steel axle-shaft to the back of the head. The prisoners' throats were then cut. "Duch ordered us to kill," said Mr Huy, pouring fragrant black tea into small glasses as though we were discussing the weather. "If they were wearing good clothes we had to strip them off, if they were not covered in blood ... It was not easy. I feel mixed up. I thought I would be executed if I did not show strong feelings to kill the enemy."

Asked how, 30 years on, he reconciled himself to what he did, Mr Huy did not hesitate. "I don't feel I'm a killer. If the Vietnamese had not invaded I would have been killed as well. People living in the outside have no idea what it was like in that prison."

Reign of terror: Pol Pot's rise and fall

After the end of the Second World War, Cambodia remained a colony of France. However, a number of groups in the country united against French rule, including the burgeoning communist andnationalist forces.

Yet neither of those groups were represented at the Geneva conference in 1954 which gave Cambodia independence and handed control of the country to King Sihanouk, above, the country's monarch since he was appointed by the French in 1941.

In 1960, the Khmer Workers' Party was created by Cambodian communists - including Pol Pot, who had been studying in Paris on a Government scholarship. It was there that he had become involved in communism, and by 1963 he was the head of what was now the Workers' Party of Kampuchea. The rebels were named Khmer Rouge by Sihanouk (the Khmers being the principal ethnic group in Cambodia) and a peasant uprising against the government in 1967 prompted them to begin an armed rebellion.

In 1970, Sihanouk was ousted in a coup whilst abroad, resulting in a new anti-communist and pro-US government. Sihanouk decided that the only way to regain Cambodia's independence was to team up with the communists, and the subsequent civil war lasted five years.

In 1975 Pol Pot emerged victorious and the Khmer Rouge were free to unleash their reign of terror. The borders of Cambodia were sealed and everyone deported to the countryside. Private property, religion and money were abolished, and vast numbers imprisoned and killed. It was not until January 1979, when Vietnamese forces took the capital Phnom Penh, that the Khmer Rouge's grip on the country ended.

Read more at The Independent.

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