First Khmer Rouge Trial Focuses on Torture House
31 Mar 09 | New York Times
Testimony opened Monday at the first trial of a Khmer Rouge official, with a detailed description of the internal workings and methods of interrogation in the regime’s central torture house.
In statements included in a long indictment read by court officials, the defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, admitted ordering and taking part in systematic torture that sometimes continued for days.
In his statements, made during pretrial investigations, he said he was working on orders from the top Khmer Rouge leadership, an assertion that appeared to implicate four other defendants who are awaiting trial.
Thirty years after the regime was deposed, Duch is the first person to take the stand and answer for one of the most horrific episodes of mass killing in the past century, in which 1.7 million people are estimated to have died from 1975 to ’79 of starvation, overwork, disease or execution.
The trial has opened, with the backing of the United Nations, amid controversy over allegations of corruption and political influence by the government, which critics contend has tried to limit the scope of the indictments.
The former commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, Duch, 66, is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and murder in the deaths of at least 14,000 people; almost all were tortured before they were executed. Only a handful of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng survived.
Some inmates were also subjected to medical experiments, including “live autopsies” and experimentation with homemade medications, according to Duch’s statements in the indictment.
Testimony on Monday involved the reading of a detailed description of the charges against Duch (pronounced DOIK). Statements from the prosecution and the defense should follow, and then accounts from witnesses and the defendant. The trial is expected to last about four months.
Through his French lawyer, François Roux, Duch has admitted his role and apologized to the victims, but he was quoted Monday as saying that he feared for his life if he did not follow orders.
Neatly dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, Duch stood at the start of the proceedings to give his name and a string of aliases, and to confirm that he understood the charges.
A former schoolteacher, Duch disappeared after the Khmer Rouge were routed by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. He was found in 1999 by a British journalist, living quietly in a small Cambodian town, where he said he had converted to Christianity. He was arrested shortly afterward.
According to the charges read Monday, the prisoners brought to Tuol Sleng were presumed guilty. Even if they had been mistakenly arrested, they were killed to preserve the secrecy of the prison, the indictment said.
Much of the prison’s work involved internal purges that consumed the Khmer Rouge regime, according to the indictment. Those who were arrested were not told the charges against them, but were forced to confess to crimes in coerced statements often hundreds of pages long.
Many of the arrests were made on the basis of names given by prisoners under torture, and were followed by further arrests of the new prisoners’ family members and associates in a widening net — an attempt to root out supposed enemies.
Duch implicated his superiors directly, according to the indictment, telling investigators, “I always reported to the superiors and they always ordered the arrest of the persons implicated.”
The four other defendants are surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership: Ieng Sary, who was foreign minister; Nuon Chea, known as Brother No. 2; Khieu Samphan, who was head of state; and Ieng Thirith, who was minister of social affairs. All have denied the charges against them, which include crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Several other top figures have died, including the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, known as Brother No. 1, in 1998.
Witnesses quoted in the indictment said Duch instructed them in methods of torture that included beatings, electric shocks, putting plastic bags over prisoners’ heads and removing fingernails and toenails.
Duch was quoted as saying he introduced three methods of interrogation: “cold,” “hot” and “chewing.” The cold method employed propaganda without the use of torture or insults. The hot method included “insults, beatings and other torture authorized by the regulations.”
The chewing method consisted, in Duch’s quoted words, of “gentle explanations in order to establish confidence, followed by prayers to the interrogated person, continually inviting her or him to write” a confession.
Another witness told investigators that torture could be used if “chewing” failed to bring results in two or three days.
One quoted witness said Duch took part in an interrogation in which a woman was stripped to her underwear and beaten long into the night. The witness said Duch beat her until he tired, then had another torturer take over.
Interrogations followed a schedule: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. But they could last long past midnight, the indictment said. They could go on for days and were considered complete only when a confession was obtained.
The indictment quoted Duch as saying that he and his superiors were “skeptical of the veracity of the confessions,” which he said were used as “excuses to eliminate those who represented obstacles” to the regime.
The indictment said untrained medical workers, sometimes including unsupervised children, worked to keep prisoners alive until they confessed.