Pol Pot has been dead for 11 years and five of his lieutenants have awaited trial for nearly two years, but so far the only Khmer Rouge official close to a verdict for war crimes is his lead jailer.
Kaing Guek Eav's sentencing should come early next year. The plain-spoken former math teacher, known by most as Comrade Duch (pronounced "Doik"), oversaw the torture and delivery to execution of as many as 17,000 Cambodians during Pol Pot's terrifying reign in the late 1970s. The scene of his crimes (by his own admission) was known as S-21, a former high school in Phnom Penh. Today it stands as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to memorialize the years that wiped out a quarter of the nation's population.
Duch has accepted responsibility for the cruelty and murder that happened on his watch but claims he personally tortured only two prisoners and did not kill anyone himself. That's not to say he didn't cop to more despicable actions; on occasion he would correct witnesses (and question whether they were imprisoned at S-21) with statements that reflected worse on himself than if he'd let the testimony stand. On July 7, for example, Khmer Rouge survivor Lay Chan testified that he was held for two months and interrogated twice before his release in 1976. Another, Chin Meth, claimed she endured forced labor and frequent beatings over a 15-day stay at the prison in 1977.
Duch countered almost as if he were offended. "The fact is that if she was transferred to S-21, she would be dead," he told the court. "She could not be let out. If people were transferred to S-21, they would be smashed."
Then on Sept. 15 he made another confession: Duch told the court he had ordered his own brother-in-law locked up in S-21, and that he was later killed.
"I vouched for my younger sister and I vouched to educate her, but I could not do that for my brother-in-law," said Duch, according to Agence France-Presse. "As a principle, when the husband was arrested the wife was arrested as well. But my younger sister was not arrested and she is still alive today," he added.
Surprises have persisted throughout the trial. After an American expert presented a list of names of individuals who were allegedly released from Tuol Sleng, Duch countered, "The people who were arrested and sent (to Tuol Sleng), they were all killed. I did not release anyone. . . . It is not exculpatory evidence at all because I am responsible for my crimes. I cannot accept that document."
Judges ended the hearings on Sept. 17, and final arguments will be delivered in November. Duch has repeatedly apologized to his victims and sought forgiveness, while admitting he deserves the most severe punishment possible. "If there is a Cambodian tradition," Duch said in mid-August, "like it existed in the past when people threw rocks at Christ to death-Cambodian people can do that to me. I would accept it."
That Duch would invoke a faulty reference to the death of Jesus (there's no biblical evidence He was ever stoned) while accepting responsibility did not surprise the few who have followed his case. The once-passionate defender of communist philosophy converted to Christianity in the mid-1990s (see "Would you forgive this man?," May 17, 2008) during the Khmer Rouge exile, while he hid in jungle villages under an alias. He earned praise from colleagues in refugee camps for volunteer work he did on behalf of the Christian relief group World Vision, although he continued to hide his real identity.
Pol Pot became the de facto leader of Cambodia in 1975 and set about to create an agrarian utopia, a purely peasant society achieved through the elimination of all individuals who showed evidence of wealth or an education-even those who wore eyeglasses. The Khmer Rouge divided families and drove them far from their home provinces. Executions, malnutrition, slave labor, and displacement all resulted in the death of approximately 2 million Cambodians-or over 20 percent of the population.
The Cambodian-American pastor who directed Duch to Christ testified on his behalf in the last week of his trial. Christopher LaPel, whose parents, brother, and sister were all murdered by the Khmer Rouge, called him "a man of God."
"After he got baptized I can see him as a completely different person," said LaPel, who immersed Duch in a Cambodian river in 1996. "I can see that he (was) a person that lived in darkness, sadness, with no joy, no love." According to Agence France-Presse, he told the court he has met, prayed, and studied the Bible with Duch several times since his 1999 arrest.
Not everyone is convinced of Duch's changed heart. After all, Cambodia does not have the death penalty and he has served 10 years of incarceration already, so accepting a severe punishment can't get much worse for the 66-year-old. And then there's the predominant religion.
"I don't think he really knows God," said war crimes archivist Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, in an interview with WORLD. "I think that is very hard for Cambodians because it is such a Buddhist country."
While dismissing his Christianity, Youk inadvertently attributed Duch's transformation to a spiritual need which Christ very well may have filled. "I think Duch was searching for internal healing," Youk said. "Everyone in the country was his enemy. God was the only one who would open His arms to him."
-Paul Chesser is special correspondent for The Heartland Institute