Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer

Ronald Bruce St John

Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was born into a poor, Sino-Cambodian family in Kompong Thom in November 1942. The eldest and only male in a family of five, he started school late but was an excellent student, especially in mathematics. He ranked second in the national baccalauréat examination in 1959, and after graduation, he took a teaching job.

In October 1967, he joined the Communist Party of Kampuchea, a Maoist-inspired group of Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Kaing Guek Eav adopted the nom de guerre Duch at this time. He was arrested in January 1968 but released two years later. In July 1971, Duch was asked to direct M-13, a security office established by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate supposed spies of the Lon Nol government which had come to power in a March 1970 coup d’état. The population at M-13 later included class enemies and suspect Communist Party of Kampuchea cadre. By his own admission, Duch refined at M-13 many of the interrogation and torture techniques employed at Security Office 21 (S-21), later known as Tuol Sleng, the name of the suburb in which S-21 was located. M-13 shut down at the end of April 1975, two weeks after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh.

Between April 1975 and January 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Democratic Kampuchea and were responsible for the death of around two million of Cambodia’s eight million inhabitants, approximately one-quarter of its total population. In that period, at least 12,380 people passed through the gates of state security prison S-21 and were killed. Only a handful of people who entered S-21 came out alive. The number of 12,380 victims is thought to be a low-end estimate as some documentation was lost and some prisoners were killed without being registered. Other estimates range from 14,000 to 20,000 victims. While S-21 was only one of at least 196 state security prisons operating in a similar manner, it was unique for at least two reasons. First, it was here that most high ranking Khmer Rouge who had fallen out of favor with the regime were sent to be interrogated, tortured, and executed. Over three-quarters of the individuals executed at S-21 were Khmer Rouge officers and soldiers who had been swept up in political purges. Second, the high level of documentation and record keeping at S-21 also separated it from other Democratic Kampuchea prisons. Ironically, at least 190 members of an S-21 staff that grew to include more than 2,000 people were also arrested and killed there. Following the closure of M-13, Duch was asked to help establish S-21, and in March 1976, he was named chairman of the prison. He continued in that role until early January 1979 when Vietnamese forces occupied Phnom Penh, and Duch disappeared.

Duch was detained in late July 2007 and eventually charged with crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention of 1949, and violations of the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code. His trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, known colloquially as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, opened in March 2009 and concluded in November of that year. In the course of 77 sessions that included the testimony of 35 witnesses and 22 victims, Duch spoke extensively, making observations and giving his own version of events. One of the real strengths of Man or Monster? is its reliance on Duch’s testimony to tell the story. Even though that testimony often constitutes a highly select history, it adds greatly to our understanding of the organization and operation of Democratic Kampuchea in general and of the Khmer Rouge prison system in particular.

In the course of the trial, the defense depicted Duch as a reluctant revolutionary who admitted to doing bad things but only out of necessity. Arguing Duch disliked police work, the defense contended that he was simply a cog in a much larger system of violence and terror in which his own survival depended on a continual demonstration of his trustworthiness. In his defense, Duch often referred to a Cambodian saying, ‘If you break open the crab, you show the shit’, to emphasize that no one in Democratic Kampuchea dared open the shell that covered what was unclean and unsaid for fear of being punished (pp. 116-117). In turn, the prosecution and the civil parties portrayed Duch as a zealous executioner who had willingly engaged in interrogation and torture at M-13 and then refined those skills and techniques at S-21. In charge of a facility at the apex of the Democratic Kampuchea security pyramid, the prosecution argued that Duch’s role was a dynamic one in which he was an active, innovative, and willing participant.

In July 2010, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal found Duch guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Duch was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but due to his illegal detention, the sentence was reduced by five years. In addition, he received credit for the 11 years he had spent in prison since he was first detained in 1999. The verdict and sentence pleased few people, notably the civil parties, and after appeals, the Supreme Court Chamber announced its final decision in early February 2012. It again found Duch guilty and increased his sentence from 35 years to life in prison.

Alexander Laban Hinton is the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights and a Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He conducted over 200 interviews in the course of his research on Duch and his trial, and the result is a nuanced look at a complex individual who was not just a man or a monster but a little bit of both. Hinton’s analysis is detailed and his arguments are well-considered and thought-provoking. In addition, this is a highly personal book in which the author freely shares his ideas, opinions, and reflections. I only wish the author had distanced himself more from the tone and language of academia and written a book more accessible to the general public. There is much for all of us to learn from Man or Monster?: The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer.