Mak Remissa/epa/Corbis

Tourists looking at photographs of Khmer Rouge victims at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 13, 2009

On February 17, a sixty-six-year-old man named Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, appeared before a mixed Cambodian-international tribunal—formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia—charged, in the words of the indictment against him, with “murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, rape, persecutions on political grounds, [and] other inhumane acts.”1 Kaing’s appearance, in what was a rather dull procedural session, marked the beginning of a long-awaited and long-postponed event, the trial of several of the figures deemed most responsible for the atrocities committed during the three years, eight months, and twenty days between 1975 and 1979 that the Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia. The tribunal starts hearing evidence at the end of March.

That the trial is even being held is in itself remarkable. It has been thirty years since the Khmer Rouge, after wreaking so much horror on Cambodia, were chased from power by Vietnam, and twelve years since Cambodia began negotiations with the UN on establishing a special court to try those most responsible for that horror. For much of that time, powerful global forces, including the United States, China, and most of the countries of Southeast Asia, opposed bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice. Indeed, because concern over Vietnamese domination of Cambodia took priority over the desire to make a reckoning with the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, these countries were in an informal alliance that kept the Khmer Rouge alive and its leaders at large.

And even though that opposition faded—with the United States in particular having become since the mid-1990s a strong supporter of prosecuting Khmer Rouge leaders—the tribunal in Phnom Penh will render only partial justice. Pol Pot himself, the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother Number One,” died in 1998, and several other leading figures of the movement are also dead. Nor will there be an examination of the actions of other countries in the long Cambodian affliction—the American bombing campaign between 1969 and 1973, for example, that claimed anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 civilian lives.

Moreover, the judges have so far decided to limit the trial to just five people: the four most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, and Ieng Thirith; plus the less senior Comrade Duch. Theoretically the Extraordinary Chambers is empowered to investigate and indict more of the many former Khmer Rouge leaders still at large, and the foreign coprosecutor, Robert Petit, seems ready to do so. But any such idea has been steadily opposed by the current Cambodian government, whose leader, Hun Sen, is himself a former Khmer Rouge official. Unless this changes—and it remains an open question—the tribunal’s focus on just five defendants might in effect grant a kind of unofficial immunity to numerous others who murdered and tortured and remain at large in Cambodia today, some as officials in the very government that is the trial’s cosponsor.

Still, despite its limited scope and these key absences, the Extraordinary Chambers is an important development. Set up in May 2006, it is presided over by seventeen Cambodian judges together with thirteen foreign judges, with the cases supervised by two prosecutors, one Cambodian and one foreign. The trial will, for one thing, mark the first time that the leaders of a Communist program of enforced social engineering and mass political persecutions will be brought to justice. Perhaps also, the trial will provide a measure of satisfaction to the Cambodians who experienced the devastations of Khmer Rouge rule. At least they will see some of those responsible for their suffering formally judged. Kaing Guek Eav, in this sense, despite his lower rank, is in many ways the most important of the former Khmer Rouge officials to be brought before the tribunal, the figure whose testimony is expected to be central to the entire event.

A slim, wiry man with a weather-beaten face and crooked teeth, Comrade Duch (pronounced Doik) is in his way a familiar figure from the twentieth century, one who illustrates the often noted capacity of ordinary—even very well-meaning—men to serve as the obedient functionaries of unspeakable atrocities. As a former devoted revolutionary who has since become a born-again Christian, he is also one of the worst mass murderers of recent history. During the years the Khmer Rouge were in power, he was commandant of the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, where some 14,000 people were interrogated, tortured, and then, virtually without exception, put to death, some at Tuol Sleng itself, many more at a mass-execution ground called Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the city.

Duch didn’t do the killing himself; he supervised it as well as the torture that usually preceded it, and he did this, as he is quoted as saying in the indictment against him, under orders from higher-ups in the Khmer Rouge whom it would have been fatal to disobey. It could even be said that in the Cambodian scheme of things the number of deaths held to his account is relatively small, 14,000 out of a total of 1.7 million who died by execution, starvation, overwork, or some other form of mistreatment by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979—about one fifth of the entire population. The Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University, which has documented the Pol Pot regime’s atrocities, found that there were 158 prisons scattered through the country and some 309 sites of mass executions—so Comrade Duch was only one of hundreds of Khmer Rouge torturers and executioners.


Still, the prison at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, which now houses Cambodia’s museum of the genocide, has come to be viewed as the worst in the regime’s vast killing bureaucracy, and Duch, as head of S-21, was of somewhat higher rank than the ordinary dispenser of torture and death in the Cambodia of that time. While the regime led by Pol Pot is most notorious for having been willing to kill almost anybody suspected of having skills or education, Tuol Sleng was reserved for suspected traitors from within the Khmer Rouge’s own ranks. As Duch has admitted to the judges of the Extraordinary Chambers who were appointed to investigate the evidence, his victims were gotten rid of by the ruling Angkar, or Organization, in what seems to have been a constant, merciless, Stalinist-Maoist-type internal purge.

Duch himself has interpreted one particularly revealing document about Tuol Sleng for the investigating judges—an order by Angkar that has become a crucial part of the prosecution’s evidence. Circulated on March 30, 1976, it introduced the phrase “smashing within and outside the ranks” into the Khmer Rouge lexicon. At the time, the word “smashing” was already a common euphemism for execution that had previously been applied to “officials of the old regime,” “the exploiting classes,” and the like. The order to smash within the ranks, Duch told the investigating judges, marked “a new period…during which the internal purges were predominant.” Duch in this sense was a sort of concierge of the machine of murder that resulted from the March 30 order. He was sent thousands of people arrested as the purge swept through every area of Cambodia. He supervised the compilation of confessions from each prisoner, and he issued reports containing the names of all those implicated in those confessions, so that new arrests could be made and new confessions obtained.

It is possible that when Duch actually testifies before the court, he might provide further descriptions of the workings of the Khmer Rouge system, though from available accounts this system was so remote from rationality that an element of grim mystery seems likely always to be attached to it. Even before they took power, the Khmer Rouge leaders had put into place in the areas they controlled an elaborate system of secret prisons that were run by functionaries they trained for the task, Duch among them. Once the Khmer Rouge came to power, they expanded their existing practices, which included keeping meticulous records: every person detained and executed at Tuol Sleng was photographed and copies were made of thousands of the confessions that were extracted. Much of this material is now part of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum collection, in which the visitor can see the photographs of the terrified and doomed victims.

Interrogation and confession were the main instruments of this system, which was based on the Angkar’s deep suspicion that there were entire networks within the Khmer Rouge that were disloyal and had to be rooted out. There was an irrational element to this, to be sure, since the terror of the purge led both to the decimation of the regime and to the escape into opposition of the very group that would cooperate with Vietnam in its overthrow. But what can’t be underestimated is the conviction, shared by most revolutionary leaders, but largely baseless as far as can be known, that clandestine and ruthless groups were out there working to seize power from the clandestine, ruthless group that held it, or to sabotage its effort to forge a new, utopian society.

The interrogations and torture by beating and electric current overseen by Duch, which could last for months until he was satisfied that the confessions were complete, were designed to produce the information wanted by the Angkar, often with fanciful details added by the desperate-to-please prisoners. Detainees would confess to being spies for the CIA and the KGB simultaneously, as well as spying for the Vietnamese, against whom the Khmer Rouge were by 1977 waging a bitter border war. Some would list just about every person they knew as traitors to the revolution, in the futile hope that by furnishing more than was being asked of them they might get better treatment. The prisoners apparently did not know that they faced certain death.


Duch passed these confessions on to the people he referred to in his sessions with the tribunal’s investigating judges as “the superiors,” meaning most frequently Son Sen, an Angkar member, later murdered, who was Duch’s patron and supervisor. In special cases, the confessions went to Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, now in prison and awaiting trial in Phnom Penh, who, armed with this evidence, could order the arrest and interrogation of those who were named. These unfortunates would in turn be dispatched to Tuol Sleng for Duch to handle in the ongoing cycle of interrogation, torture, confession, and execution.2 Like the existence of Tuol Sleng itself, the confessions were kept secret. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Son Sen was angry at Duch for having failed to destroy the evidence of the center’s existence.

A central finding of the indictment against Duch is that virtually without exception, no man, woman, or child who entered Tuol Sleng could exit it alive, except to be taken the few kilometers to Choeung Ek to be killed there. According to Nic Dunlop—the Irish photographer who, in 1999, discovered Duch in a village near the Thai border, where he had been living for years under an assumed name—by 1978, “more than three-quarters of the twenty-two original members of the Central Committee were dead.”3 Not a bullet was spared; executioners killed their victims by hitting them in the back of the neck with iron bars. Moreover, as the indictment puts it, “the policy of smashing enemies almost always extended to their families, including children.” The indictment makes no attempt to determine the total number of children killed in these purges. But it does state that 160 children were put to death at Choeung Ek on a single July day in 1977, adding the detail that children were generally murdered by dropping them from someplace high enough that their necks would break.


Adrees Latif/epa/Corbis

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Comrade Duch, in a Phnom Penh courtroom on February 17, 2009, the first day of his trial for atrocities committed at Tuol Sleng prison, where he was commandant under the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s

The question arises why Duch should be on trial before a tribunal that is supposed to focus only on the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. And why has he been designated as the first of the defendants who will go before the court? The main reason is that the other four defendants have denied responsibility for the mass deaths that occurred while they were in power. Khieu Samphan served as president and one of the leading strategists of the regime; Ieng Sary was foreign minister, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, was on the Khmer Central Committee; Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two, was directly responsible for purges. Each has claimed that the killings were carried out by overzealous subordinates without their knowledge. Duch alone has expressed remorse for his actions, and he has willingly cooperated with prosecutors.

“Duch is going first because he’s going to spill the beans on everybody else,” I was told by Gregory Stanton, the founder of the organization Genocide Watch, one of the small groups of scholars and activists at universities and human rights organizations who have for decades been demanding that the senior Khmer Rouge leaders be brought to trial. “He was converted to Christianity, and I’m convinced his conversion was genuine. He’s said he wanted to confess to all the things he’s done, and since then he’s really talked.”

From his testimony so far and from years of research on his past, we already know much about Kaing Guek Eav. He was born in 1942 in a small village in Kompong Thom province in central Cambodia. Like many of the other important figures in the Khmer Rouge, including Pol Pot himself and, as it happens, all of Duch’s fellow defendants before the Extraordinary Chambers, he was partly of Chinese origin. Though poor, he got as good an education as Cambodia offered, owing to modernizing reforms put into place by Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s. He attended the prestigious Lycée Sisowath in Phnom Penh (where Pol Pot had preceded him) and then the Institut de Pédagogie, which was directed by Son Sen, who later served on the Cambodian Communist Party’s Central Committee and appointed Duch to be head of S-21.

One teacher at the Institut de Pédagogie was the head of a local cell of the Communist Party of Cambodia who brought Duch into the ranks; he is identified in the indictment as Person II but is widely known among experts on Cambodia to have been a former Khmer official named Chhay Kim Hour. It became a measure of Duch’s devotion to the cause that when Chhay Kim Hour was caught in the S-21 dragnet, Duch had him interrogated, tortured, and executed like any other prisoner. A similar fate befell Ke Kim Huot, Duch’s childhood teacher and mentor, who also ended up in Tuol Sleng, where, after being beaten, submitted to electric torture, and forced to eat feces, he admitted to being a member of a CIA network trying to overthrow the revolution.

Kaing Guek Eav won the second prize in a national math competition while still a lycée student. After his graduation from the Institut de Pédagogie in 1966, he taught math at a rural school and quickly became a prominent figure in the local leftist underground, which led to his arrest by Sihanouk’s police in 1968 and his imprisonment without trial for two years. But in 1970, General Lon Nol, Sihanouk’s former prime minister, took power in a coup, forcing Sihanouk to go into exile in China and North Korea. Kaing was released in a general amnesty and, after a very brief visit to his family, joined a Khmer Rouge base in the jungle west of Phnom Penh. It was there that he become known as Comrade Duch and began his career in what the Khmer Rouge called Special Security, running two prisons, M-13 and M-99, in which Dunlop estimates that some 20,000 prisoners were killed—this in the years before the Khmer Rouge gained control of the rest of the country.

In 1972, the French ethnologist François Bizot, studying Buddhism in rural Cambodia, was captured by the Khmer Rouge and brought to M-13, where he had the longest exposure to Comrade Duch of any foreigner during the Khmer Rouge period. Among the techniques Bizot observed and recounted in his 2003 book The Gate were meetings of the prison’s guards during which they tried to earn the admiration of the “beloved Angkar” by pointing out each other’s mistakes and shortcomings. The goal, as Bizot noted, was to create a cadre whose members “so loved the revolution that they were unafraid to denounce their fathers or their brothers.”4

This was the hothouse atmosphere of indoctrination that helps to explain Duch’s skill at extracting denunciations from prisoners at Tuol Sleng, though Bizot describes him as a man not devoid of kindness or even a sense of humor, if sometimes a dark one. At one point, Duch left the camp to attend a meeting at which it was to be determined whether Bizot was or was not a CIA spy, a question whose answer literally meant life or death for him. “You have been exposed!” Duch announced as he returned to the camp from his meeting. When he saw Bizot sink to his knees in despair, an expression “between surprise and embarrassment” came over Duch’s face and he quickly assured his captive that he was only joking. “Did you believe me?” he said. “You’re going to be set free.” And then, after he had helped Bizot to his feet, he assured him, “You’ll be home for Christmas.”

In general, Bizot’s findings about Duch are not very surprising. Like other seemingly “ordinary” people working for murderous regimes, Duch was a firm believer in both the utter goodness of the revolution he was a part of and the utter evil of anybody who might oppose it. “When we have rid our country of the vermin that infect people’s minds,” he told Bizot, “when we have liberated it from this army of cowards and traitors who debase the people, then we will rebuild a Cambodia of solidarity, united by genuine bonds of fraternity and equality.” When Bizot asked him about the beatings of prisoners, Duch’s reply was that they had already been caught in the act of spying and the only way to uncover their networks was “to terrorize them, isolate them, and starve them…. I beat them,” Duch continued, “I beat them until I am out of breath.” Nearly three decades later, in 1999, after Nic Dunlop had discovered him near the Thai border working for an American refugee organization, Duch said, “I feel very sorry about the killings and the past—I wanted to be a good communist; I did not take any pleasure in my work, All the confessions of the prisoners—I worried, is that true or not?”

Later, however, when he spoke to the investigating magistrates of the Extraordinary Chambers, Duch admitted that he knew the confessions to be false. How could they not have been, since torture was systematic and much of the content of the confessions determined beforehand? “Duch now maintains,” the indictment states, “that he was, from an early time, sceptical of the veracity of the confessions, claiming that they were demanded from above” and, in his view, used as “excuses to eliminate those who represented obstacles.” Duch continues: “Even the Standing Committee, in my opinion, did not really believe in it.”

Along with Duch’s other statements, this deeply incriminating acknowledgment suggests that the leaders of the Angkar not only were concerned that they faced subversive networks but also wanted a capricious terror to prevail in the ranks as a way of maintaining their absolute control. And once the machinery was in operation, the continued implication of new people in supposed crimes against the regime by those already tortured fit into the leaders’ plans to expunge any possible disloyalty, even if the innocent were to be liquidated with the guilty. Duch said that Ankgar’s ruthlessness left him no choice. “When I was forced to supervise M-13, I became both an actor in criminal acts and also a hostage of the regime,” he said. “All this,” the indictment concludes, “led [Duch] to be paralysed by fear for his life, wondering when it would be his turn.” He wanted to escape, he said, but he knew that he himself was under constant surveillance and that an attempt to escape “would mean death for me and my family.”

Many of course are guilty in the Cambodian tragedy. In his 1979 book, Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Destruction of Cambodia, William Shawcross persuasively argued that without the American decision to bomb Cambodia, a desperate effort to eliminate the country as a North Vietnamese sanctuary, the conditions that led to the Khmer Rouge takeover would never have been created. China, which inspired and equipped the Khmer Rouge in the beginning and then gave crucial backing to the organization after the Vietnamese ousted it from power in 1979, has played a cynical, self-serving role in the country since the late 1970s. For more than a decade after the Khmer Rouge defeat at Vietnam’s hands, most of the same foreign governments that are now supporting the Cambodian tribunal vociferously opposed a trial of former Khmer leaders. Faced with two odious options, recognizing a Vietnamese puppet regime as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia or recognizing the Khmer Rouge, most countries, including the United States, chose the Khmer Rouge.

For three years after its overthrow, with US acquiescence, the Pol Pot government retained Cambodia’s UN seat even as China reequipped the Khmer Rouge’s remnants on the Thai border, and a guerrilla war with the pro-Vietnamese regime got underway. In 1982 Prince Sihanouk and some former Lon Nol loyalists joined an anti-Vietnamese coalition, in which the Khmer Rouge was clearly the strongest party. I was in Beijing in 1982 when Sihanouk, who lived half of his time there and the other half in Pyongyang, received Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge head of state, for talks establishing the coalition.

Until the agreement in 1991 that led to UN-supervised elections in Cambodia and the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces, the United States also opposed holding Khmer leaders to account. Shortly after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski outlined to Indonesian leaders what would be American policy: “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot,” he said. “Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.” In 1983, George Shultz, then secretary of state, said an Australian effort to sponsor a dialogue with Vietnam was “stupid.”5 In 1989 Shultz’s successor, James Baker, urged that the Khmer Rouge be included in the government if a coalition with Sihanouk could be formed.

On the Cambodian side, Hun Sen, who came to power following the Vietnamese invasion and consolidated his control in a 1998 coup, has sometimes seemed to favor an international tribunal and at other times granting amnesty to the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Having himself belonged to the Khmer Rouge, he defected to Vietnam to avoid the ongoing purge, though no evidence has surfaced that he was directly involved in Khmer Rouge atrocities. Still, even after the United States and the rest of the world dropped their opposition to bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice, it took a decade of on-again, off-again negotiations before both Cambodia and the UN accepted the current composition of the Extraordinary Chambers.

In 1997, Pol Pot, holed up in a jungle base near the Thai border, ordered the execution of Son Sen, his former lieutenant (and Duch’s chief patron), along with his entire family, very possibly because he thought that Son Sen was planning to make a deal with the Hun Sen government and turn himself in. That deed led the remaining Khmer Rouge to organize a show trial of Pol Pot himself, who was then held in a jungle prison until his death by unknown causes in 1998—just before he was to be turned over to Hun Sen for trial. That year too, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea turned themselves in, very likely on the understanding that they would benefit from amnesties from Hun Sen if they did so—but clearly, if there were assurances along these lines, they have been revoked.

The remaining defendant, Duch, transformed his life. For a few years he remained under Khmer Rouge supervision, teaching math in refugee camps on the Thai border, except for two years spent in Beijing as a teacher of Cambodian at China’s Foreign Language Institute. He told the investigating judges of the Extraordinary Chambers that after returning from China he managed to escape, moving to a small village with his wife and children and living under the name Hang Pin. But in 1995, in an incident that has never been explained, his home was broken into at night, his wife was murdered, and he was wounded—possibly punishment for his having left the Khmer Rouge ranks.

Not long after that he converted to Christianity, after attending prayer meetings in the western Cambodian province of Battambang led by a Cambodian-born missionary named Christopher LaPel. According to LaPel, Duch, who then went by the name Hang Pin, hinted at his past, allowing that he “did a lot of bad things in his life,” deeds for which he wasn’t sure if forgiveness was possible, but until Dunlop identified him (from a photograph of Duch that he carried with him wherever he traveled in Cambodia), nobody seems to have known that this new lay preacher was the notorious torturer and murderer of Tuol Sleng.6

It is unfortunate that Duch’s testimony can be used against only the four former Khmer Rouge leaders who are in custody. Early in January, Chea Leang, the Cambodian coprosecutor in the Extraordinary Chambers (her foreign counterpart, Robert Petit, is a Canadian), said that five defendants are enough and that more would strain the tribunal’s budget and “undermine national stability and reconciliation,”7 a code phrase for threatening the former Khmer Rouge officials who now serve in the Hun Sen government. This de facto amnesty has led human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists to criticize the entire deal. But as Gregory Stanton put it to me, an imperfect tribunal is far better than no tribunal at all, and an imperfect tribunal is the only one that Cambodia is ever likely to see.

—March 10, 2009

This Issue

April 9, 2009