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Eav at a Dec. 3, 2007, hearing.

Would you forgive this man?

Cambodia | The Khmer Rouge finally faces trial for its killing fields, with one leader, Comrade Duch, confessing both conversion and murder: "We killed them like chickens"

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

Kaing Guek Eav, now a frail 66, admits responsibility for 12,000-14,000 deaths. Three decades ago, known as Comrade Duch (pronounced Duke), he ran a Phnom Penh torture center that was the next-to-last stop for "class enemies" who were then murdered in Cambodian communism's killing fields and buried in mass graves.

In coming months the trial of Eav is scheduled to begin. The Cambodian government is finally charging some Khmer Rouge leaders with crimes against humanity, and in the process rubbing their noses in the enormity of their evil. Judges, lawyers, and witnesses earlier this year escorted Eav to the scenes of his mass murders. They showed him a tree against which his underlings smashed babies' heads. They showed him a memorial that displays the skulls of thousands of his victims.

Eav broke down in sobs. But he did more than that. He knelt on the ground and prayed, because during the 1990s the torturer had made a profession of faith in Christ. In western Cambodia, on the other side of the country from where Eav had been a beast, he had become known as a gentle Christian teacher who walked around with a Bible and helped hungry refugee children.

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That rededicated life ended in 1999, while Eav was working for World Vision. A photographer identified him as the master torturer, and Eav confessed, saying, "It is God's will that you are here." Christopher LaPel, the pastor who had baptized him, said he "was shocked when I found out who he really was, because what he did was so evil."

LaPel had great reason for fierce anger: Eav and his revolutionary colleagues had killed LaPel's parents, brother, and sister during the 1975-79 Red Terror. But upon reflection LaPel's reaction changed: "It's amazing. It's a miracle. Christianity changes people's lives. If Jesus can change Eav, he can change anyone."

The Cambodian courts will now deal with the issue of punishment. Eav has told reporters, "I have done very bad things in my life. Now it is time to bear the consequences of my actions. I thought that God was very bad. I did not serve God, I served communism. I feel very sorry about the killings. We killed them like chickens. . . . I guess I will go to jail now, but it is OK. The killings must be understood. The truth should be known."

The truth that is already known: Some 1.7 million Cambodians, one-fourth of the population, died during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule. What is unknown: Will Eav during his trial stick with his initial confession and willingness to bear the consequences? He's told other reporters that he was "a technician for the Communist Party" and "I followed the orders of my superiors" and "I was under other people's command. . . . Any fault should be blamed on the leadership, not me."

Other unknowns: Will Eav witness to Christ's mercy? He told Pastor LaPel, "I don't know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I've committed against the people." He said he felt remorse for what he had done to innocent people, adding: "Thank God that the Lord forgives me." Will he receive forgiveness from relatives and friends of the Cambodians he had killed? Should he? Can they forgive what he did to others who are no longer on earth to offer forgiveness?

The Boston Globe after Eav's arrest quoted Kong Rian of World Vision, who was involved in hiring Eav: "He showed me his certificate of baptism. He respected everybody. He was very polite and seemed really to want to help people. I would say he was a very, very nice man." But Kong Rian, who lost two brothers to communist executioners, said, "I don't want him to escape trial."

The Globe also quoted another World Vision employee, Chreng Darren, who was Eav's supervisor: "He is a gentle man. . . . You cannot guess the heart of the man. But we should forgive him. If right now he likes to study the Bible, to me it is a very big change."

The punishment Duch is likely to receive should be distinguished from the forgiveness from Cambodian Christians that he may receive-and this Cambodia saga has parallels to the story told in a famous work, Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower (1970).

Wiesenthal after World War II became a leading hunter of Nazi war criminals, but the story he tells in The Sunflower is of an encounter he had in 1943, at an Austrian concentration camp, with a dying Nazi, Karl Seidl. Seidl, an SS member, had asked a nurse to bring him a Jew to whom he could confess his sins against other Jews. The dying man, from his bed, grabbed Wiesenthal's hand and confessed to helping to burn down a house in which more than 150 Jews were trapped.

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