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.

Chor Sokunthea/Reuters
Journalists watch Khmer Rouge torture chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as 'Duch', on a television screen as a live feed is transmitted during the court session to announce his verdict at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Monday.

Math wiz, high school teacher, communist ideologue, born-again Christian, aid worker, contrite confessor, and mass murderer.

These were some of the roles played over the past three decades by Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name, “Duch.”

Now an international war crimes tribunal has given the former Khmer Rouge prison chief a new title: war criminal.

A United Nations-backed tribunal today found Duch (pronounced Doik) guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as head of Cambodia's S-21 prison camp in Phnom Penh, where some 17,000 people were tortured and executed.

Judges handed down a sentence Monday that could allow the 67-year-old walk free after serving 19 years, angering many Cambodians who wanted the killer jailed for life. Moreover, Duch's defense team said Tuesday that he will appeal against his conviction.

Critics say the court case has provided little comfort to those still struggling to understand this chameleon-like figure who rose rapidly through the ranks of the Khmer Rouge to become the regime’s chief executioner.

KHMER ROUGE EXECUTIONER found guilty, but Cambodians say sentence too light

Indeed, the question still remains: Who was Duch?

Still playing chameleon?

When considering their verdict, judges said they took into account mitigating factors including Duch’s expressions of remorse, his admission of guilt, and his cooperation with the court. But many ordinary Cambodians doubt Duch's sincerity, and even people in close contact with him say that he may have once again played the chameleon.

"He only apologised to the judges. Duch didn't apologize to the victims," Chum Mey, 79, told Agence France-Presse. He was one of only seven survivors of Duch's torture prison.

Even Him Huy, a former guard at Duch’s S-21 prison, suggests that judges were hoodwinked into believing Duch had truly taken responsibility for his crimes. In a telephone interview, he says he thinks Duch’s admission of guilt was a ploy.

To Mr. Him, Duch’s pleas for forgiveness and his promise to cooperate fully with the court were “tricks” designed to curry favor with the judges so that he would receive a more lenient sentence.

Mr. Him, one of 24 witnesses to give testimony during the 72-day trial, testified last year that as chief of S-21 Duch said the majority of Cambodians deserved to be killed because they failed to adequately support the Khmer Rouge.

A staunch revolutionary

If that was truly Duch’s belief, he certainly did his best to live up to it. Under his supervision, as many as 17,000 people were tortured into confessing that they were part of an elaborate network of spies bent on undermining the Khmer Rouge’s Utopian Maoist revolution. Duch spun a paranoid web of imagined intrigue in which anyone from a peasant to a high-ranking official could be working undercover for the KGB, CIA, or the Vietnamese, according to court testimony.

In the court's ruling today, the judges said that Duch "possessed and exercised significant authority at S-21 and that his conduct in carrying out his functions showed a high degree of efficiency and zeal. He worked tirelessly to ensure that S-21 ran as efficiently as possible and did so out of unquestioning loyalty to his superiors."

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.

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.)


You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.