Khmer Rouge torture chief to appeal: Is he a chameleon or a contrite Christian?
Khmer Rouge torture chief 'Duch' converted to Christianity after overseeing the deaths in Cambodia of some 17,000 people in the late 1970s. He now plans to appeal a 19-year prison sentence, leading victims and even his own pastor to believe his invocations of Jesus Christ were a ploy to gain leniency in court.
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After a blood-drenched three years, eight months in power, the Khmer Rouge were vanquished to the jungles in 1979 by a Vietnamese-backed army of Cambodian defectors. Duch was among the last to flee Phnom Penh, escaping first into Khmer Rouge-controlled zones along the border with Thailand, and later spending time teaching languages in China, which financed and supported the Khmer Rouge through the 1970s and 1980s.Skip to next paragraph
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Then, he disappeared.
Finding the faith
For reasons not completely clear, in the early 1990s Duch defected from the Khmer Rouge, moved his family to another part of Cambodia, and recreated his identity, calling himself Hang Pin, a born-again Christian who worked in refugee camps for an American aid agency.
Duch's eldest child, Ky Sievkim, told the Monitor in 2009 that her father baptized her soon after his conversion. "Every night my father led me in prayer. Every Sunday he brought out the Bible and read it to the whole family," she said during an interview at her home in Battambang Province.
Duch even started a house church out of his home. "He spoke of Jesus Christ and tried to convince other teachers to believe," Hun Smien, the former director of a high school where Duch taught in the late 1990s, told the Monitor in 2009.
In 1999, while working with the aid agency as Hang Pin, Duch was discovered by Irish photojournalist Nic Dunlop, who recognized him from a snapshot he was carrying around with him. When Mr. Dunlop confronted Duch, he admitted his true identity, calling himself “the chief of sinners” and comparing his confession to that of St. Paul.
But those close to Duch today ask: Was he sincere? Did he convert to Christianity because of the murder of his wife in a mysterious house break-in? Did he convert out of fear for his own life? Or did he convert out of sincerity after prodding from a handful of evangelical Cambodians?
Even the pastor who baptized Duch now doubts whether the conversion was real.
'He was just using Jesus' name'
When he taught Hang Pin about Jesus Christ, pastor Sen Timothy had no idea of his acolyte’s past. But even after 1999 when Hang Pin was revealed to be Duch and arrested, Mr. Sen continued to correspond with him at his detention center. For more than a decade, Sen mentored and nurtured his budding Christian, who continued to take communion while in detention. At the start of his trial in February 2009, Duch invoked the name of Jesus Christ and said he prayed for forgiveness from his countrymen.
It wasn’t until the end of Duch’s trial that Sen lost faith in his former student, according to a recent article in the Cambodia Daily print-only newspaper.
On Nov. 27, after nine months of consistently taking individual responsibility for the atrocities committed at S-21, Duch made a U-turn and asked for an acquittal. The move shook Sen’s faith in Duch’s Christianity.
“Duch told everyone that he believed in Jesus, but to change like this means that he was just using Jesus’ name. So that’s double guilt," Sen told the Cambodia Daily.
Indeed, Duch’s latest request that the court release him seems a far cry from the man who told the tribunal judges in 2009: "It matters little if they condemn me, even to the heaviest sentence. As for the Christ’s death, Cambodians can inflict that fate on me, I will accept it."
(Editor's Note: This article was updated after publication to reflect the defense's plan to appeal.)
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