Khmer Rouge Defendant Apologizes for Atrocities
Published: March 31, 2009
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Khmer Rouge torture house commandant apologized in court on Tuesday for atrocities he had committed but said that he had feared for his own life and that he was a scapegoat for others.
“I would like to express my regret and heartfelt sorrow,” said the commandant, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch. He is the first defendant in the long-delayed trial regarding the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, overwork and disease, as well as torture and execution under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
Those deaths, amounting to nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population, were carried out by one of the 20th century’s most brutal and repressive regimes.
“My current plea is that I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness,” he said in an 18-minute address. One of five defendants in the United Nations-backed trial, he faces a life sentence on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as homicide and torture.
He concluded by presenting the court with a pencil sketch of men at desks and piles of skulls that he said explained the workings of the regime’s hierarchy.
In an intense second day of testimony, one of the prosecutors, Robert Petit, portrayed the 66-year-old Duch (pronounced DOIK) as a committed and ruthless chief of Tuol Sleng prison and questioned the sincerity of his expressions of remorse.
“The accused was knowingly and intentionally in control of the entire Tuol Sleng criminal enterprise,” Mr. Petit said, noting that his contrition had come only many years later. “Rather than a victim of fear, he was the one who created fear,” Mr. Petit said.
He illustrated what he said was Duch’s brutality by describing the fate of his “teacher and mentor,” Chay Kim Huor, who recruited him into the Communist Party in 1964. “Fifteen years later the accused would supervise the torture and execution of Chay,” Mr. Petit said. “That single fact I submit as highly revealing.”
At a news conference after the court session, a lawyer representing civil parties in the case said Duch’s apology addressed a deep need among victims, whose traumas had not been publicly acknowledged for three decades.
“The most important thing is that he spoke today and expressed regret, remorse, and sought forgiveness, which was something the civil parties have been waiting for a long time,” said the lawyer, Martine Jacquin.
Duch’s biographer, Nic Dunlop — who discovered him living incognito 10 years ago — said that even if it was tactical, Duch’s apology was significant. Mr. Dunlop said Duch’s cooperation and truth-telling would offer some of the historical clarification that many Cambodians are seeking.
Duch’s lawyers presented a vigorous defense of a man who has admitted to overseeing the torture and execution of at least 14,000 people, portraying him as someone trapped in a giant killing machine who now finds himself singled out for prosecution.
Asserting that Tuol Sleng was just one of 196 similar institutions — and far from the worst of them — one of his lawyers, Kar Savuth, asked: “Is it fair? Is this called justice?
“Each prison had the same orders from Angkar,” he said, referring to the Khmer Rouge leadership, “all conducted torture and execution. Why is only Duch brought to trial? He is only a scapegoat.”
He added: “It would be better not to try anyone than to try some and leave others at large.”
Duch’s second lawyer, François Roux, said Duch was part of a hierarchy of terror in which all the actors were in effect victims as well as perpetrators.
“It was because of the terror that every link in the chain of command acted zealously to please superiors,” he said.
Duch had admitted his part in sowing fear among his subordinates, he said. “Does this mean therefore that we should cloak in silence the fact that he himself received orders? What we agree happened below happened equally above him.”
Taking his argument of moral equivalence a step further, Mr. Roux said that just as Duch had dehumanized his victims, his accusers and victims were guilty of dehumanizing him.
“Duch remains a human being,” he said, addressing prosecutors. “Maybe there are certain points at which he has a bit of trouble admitting certain things. But maybe you as well have trouble admitting certain things.”
Addressing the court, Duch also suggested an equivalence with survivors of the Khmer Rouge, saying he felt remorse and shame “in the eyes of those who were victims and those who lost loved ones in the regime, including my own loved ones, who lost family members as well.”
He said he did not dare to think of challenging his superiors. “So it was a life-or-death situation for me myself, and my family as a whole,” he said. “As the person in charge, of Tuol Sleng, I never attempted to find an alternative other than obeying an order, even though I knew that obeying the order meant that numerous people would perish.”