Duch trial may be first and last

24 February 2010 by Jared Ferie

When the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) hands down its first verdict in the coming weeks, it will be a landmark for a tribunal mired in allegations of political interference. It will also be a judgment on a man who admitted responsibility for torture and killings at a Khmer Rouge prison he ran, but simultaneously argued that he was following orders he could not reject.

That bipolar dynamic emerged the first day that Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Duch”, addressed the court. “I would like to apologize to all surviving victims and their families who were mercilessly killed at S-21,” he said. “It is my hope, however, that you would at least leave the door open for forgiveness.”

But as he carried on, his appeal grew murkier. He said he asked for another job when he was first ordered to take over the prison, but his request was rejected. “I was forced to accept the position, and so I agreed,” said Duch, explaining that he and his family would have faced the same fate as his victims if he continued to protest.

Between 13,000 and 17,000 people were tortured at S-21 before being killed. The numbers spiked during the last years of the regime, when its leaders became paranoid about infiltration by foreign agents and began purging the party. It was Duch’s job to make sure that prisoners confessed to their roles in elaborate, imagined conspiracies.

“Even though I knew these orders were criminal, I dared not think this way at the time. It was a life and death problem for me and my family,” Duch said.

Want to read more?

If you subscribe to a free membership, you can read this article and explore our full archive, dating back to 1997.

Subscribe now