‘I AM IN DANGER’: Duch talks of the risks to his life, even as he provides further details of Khmer Rouge death machine
By Nate Thayer in Battambang province
Far Eastern Economic Review
May 13, 1999
(Authors note: At the time of the publication of this interview, the UN special representative to Cambodia on Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, called for the Phnom Penh government to ensure Duch’s protection “from possible retaliation or attempts to reduce him to silence…because of his key role as a cadre at the heart of the political security machinery he is a crucial witness to some of the worst of human-rights violations which have occurred during this century. Because of the publication of his interview, his safety and life may seriously be in danger.” Hammarberg called for an “ad hoc international tribunal” to be set up outside Cambodia. “The Cambodian judiciary unfortunately is unfit to handle a trial of this complexity and magnitude,” he said, because it failed to meet certain conditions such as “a culture of respect for due process.” The charges proposed by a UN panel of experts cover crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, forced labour, torture, and crimes against internationally protected persons. I was asked by the court for raw copies of my taped interviews of Duch, Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, and Ieng Sary. I was also asked to be a witness and testify at the trial. I rejected both requests. Not because I oppose a trial for those indicted (and many others)--quite the opposite--but because I oppose being party to a politically motivated/manipulated/influenced show trial. Not to mention it is in violation of international standards of justice which forbid hearsay. And international law where if a person is alive and available to testify themselves, it is forbidden for a third party to quote that person when he is available to testify on his own behalf. A third reason, is I am a journalist, and portions of the interviews were given on various degrees of "on/off the record" and "background" basis. No court has the right to compel a journalist to reveal their sources. It undermines the whole basis of the role of a free press in a free society. But mostly, in this case, it is clear that there is little difference between this trial and a Stalinist era communist show trial where accused are cherry picked for political reasons, not based on an evidentiary process where investigators gather evidence, decide where they constitute sufficient, court admissible information to base an indictment, and then press charges. These defendants were pre determined for political reasons and many others were excluded, also for political reasons, despite overwhelming evidence of culpability sufficient for indictment. For Cambodians, it reinforces the reality of impunity from justice for those with political influence. This trial is being given the rubber stamp of approval by the UN and international community, sending a message to your average Cambodian peasant that there exists no where to turn where an independent judiciary will seek justice on their behalf. In thousand sof Cambodian villages, people remain alive and in political power who have committed crimes against international law and their victims have no recourse.)
Kang Kek Ieu’s name is usually spelled “Kiang” by scholars, but in his interviews with the REVIEW, he said he writes it as Kang. He is an odd looking man, his large head seemingly out of proportion to his short, thin body. His huge ears frame a wide grin, which exposes his missing teeth and the rotting remaining ones. Both eyes are unfocused, clouded grey-blue with what appears to be glaucoma. His left hand is missing its index finger and is curved like a claw, the result, he says, of an accident while cleaning a weapon in 1983.
He seemed calm about being exposed as a mass—murderer, even laughing briefly at the irony of being asked by the REVIEW to write his own “confession.” Presented with a rough biography to verify, as well as copies of orders he and other leaders issued to torture and kill prisoners, he spoke for days and wrote long descriptions of the workings and structure of the Khmer Rouge killing machine. In the process, he sometimes wept and expressed deep remorse.
He was intent on concealing his whereabouts. “I don’t want any man to know our relationship,” he told the REVIEW, “They will make me unsafe. I have no secrets from the Far Eastern economic Review, but I fear the people around me. I don’t know who is the man of Nuon Chea, of Ta Mok, of Khieu Samphan. I am in danger. My life is at risk. My sister will worry if I speak in Khmer. She will say, ‘My brother will die!’ They can kill me. They will say I am the man of the CIA who sold out to the USA.”
Duch said he had been visited by the local police chief after being seen talking to the review in this remote hamlet. “I see you are talking to the bad people,” Duch quoted the police chief as telling him, “You should be careful.”
There are many people who don’t want the truth to be known, leading the United Nations to fear for his safety. In a statement, the UN special representative to Cambodia on human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, called for the Phnom Penh government to promptly take steps to ensure Duch’s protection “from possible retaliation or attempts to reduce him to silence…because of his key role as a cadre at the heart of the political security machinery he is a crucial witness to some of the worst of human-rights violations which have occurred during this century. Because of the publication of his interview, his safety and life may seriously be in danger."
Hammarberg called for an “ad hoc international tribunal” to be set up outside Cambodia. “The Cambodian judiciary unfortunately is unfit to handle a trial of this complexity and magnitude,” he said, because it failed to meet certain conditions such as “a culture of respect for due process.” The charges proposed by a UN panel of experts cover crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, forced labour, torture, and crimes against internationally protected persons.
If Duch goes before an international tribunal, his evidence would potentially be damning. Among his statements to the REVIEW:
--“Foreigners don’t know who ordered the killings. I want to explain clearly to you: It was a decision of the central committee of the Communist Party. I followed the orders of my superiors, Nuon Chea and Son Sen, but I have great difficulty now, thinking that the people who died did nothing wrong.”
--“My superior first was Vorn Vet during the war time, then after liberation (in 1975) I reported directly to Son Sen. In July 1978, I was transferred to Nuon Chea when Son Sen went to command the fighting in the east with the Vietnamese.”
--Duch later killed Vorn Vet at Tuol Sleng (see “Death in Detail”) after he was purged. “Ta Mok personally arrested Vorn Vet at his house. (Standing Committee member) Ke Pok was there and hid under the bed, trembling with fear. Nuon Chea's wife told me this.” Ke Pok, who as a Khmer Rouge commander was implicated in the purges of the late 1970’s, is now a one-star general in the Cambodian army.
--“The decision to arrest all the women and children, the families of suspects, was made by the provincial committee, the regional leaders, or the central committee of the party. Everyone connected must be killed.”
--Duch said that photos were taken of all the prisoners sent to Tuol Sleng “to prove to the party that they were arrested. For some people, Nuon Chea wanted me to give him pictures of their dead bodies for proof. He ordered me to bring pictures of their dead bodies to his office.”
The arrest of Hu Nim, the former Khmer Rouge Minister of Information, was decided by the entire Central Committee, Duch said. But it was Nuon Chea and Son Sen who actually ordered the arrests and executions of purged cadres. “For arresting people, it was the everyday job of Nuon Chea and Son Sen.” Nuon Chea was in charge of the killing machine and “the second man for the killing was Son Sen.” (Son Sen is now dead; Nuon Chea is living freely in western Cambodia)
--Neither Vorn Vet nor Ieng Sary (the former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister, now also living in Pailin) was present at the 1978 meeting at which the leaders decided to purge the Khmer Rouge eastern zone, Duch recalled. “Son Sen and Nuon Chea ordered the arrest and killing of many of the party leaders,” he said. Then, looking puzzled, he added: “I don’t know why.”
He described the process of distributing the confessions he extracted from his victims under torture: “I made four copies of every confession. I would give the original to Son Sen and keep one copy at Tuol Sleng. Son Sen would give a copy to Nuon Chea and Nuon Chea would give to others depending on the case. After July, 1978, I gave copies to Nuon Chea directly.”
I had a special telephone in my house direct to Son Sen that could not be tapped. Nuon Chea talked less on the phone, but preferred to write instructions and I would visit him at his office. Son Sen loved to talk on the phone, sometimes for more than an hour.”
The Khmer Rouge leaders are aware that the archives seized at Tuol Sleng are potentially incriminating, Duch indicated.” On 25 June 1986, Son Sen asked me, ‘What about the papers at S-21? (a name for the national-security apparatus)’ I told him the truth, that Nuon Chea didn’t tell me the Vietnamese were coming.” (Duch had already said that because of this lack of warning, he didn’t have time to destroy the papers) “Son Sen got very angry with Nuon Chea.”
Poring over some of the Tuol Sleng documents, which ordered the torture and killing of thousands of people, Duch said: “This is the handwriting off Nuon Chea. You see this handwriting is square; mine is oval, like Son Sen’s.”
Having spoken of the fates of eight westerners killed at Tuol Sleng, Duch also recalled the death of another foreigner, a French truck driver who had been working in Indochina before the Khmer Rouge took power. The man’s death was ordered by Ta Mok, Duch said. “I killed him in 1971. Ta Mok ordered me to kill him.” He said the Frenchman, whose name is being withheld by the REVIEW pending the notification of his family, ‘was very courageous. He explained to me about Catholicism.”
Though Duch seemed to realize that these revelations would change his life, he didn’t know quite how. “I guess I cannot work to build schools in my district now, “he said. He then asked whether he might get a job as a human rights worker.