Khmer Rouge Tribunals and Tuol Sleng (S-21)

This past Wednesday I spent the afternoon at the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, Case 1, the trial of Duch, head of Toul Sleng (or “S-21”) for the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, 1975-1979. Those of you who know your human rights history will recognize Toul Sleng as the central torture and interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge regime, and Duch (his nom de guerre) as the premier torturer. Although Pol Pot was the leader of the regime, Duch was its face of evil—the bureaucrat and sadist combined. Duch catalogued each of his 10,519 victims in black and white photographs upon entry, and then proceeded with organizing, ordering, and in many cases carrying out the beating, cutting, stretching, electrocution, waterboarding, etc. that accompanied the interrogation and forced false confessions for which the place is notorious. The tribunal Wednesday afternoon concerned Duch’s knowledge of the war with Vietnam and the origin and identity of the Vietnamese who came through Toul Sleng. The content was somewhat esoteric—17 Vietnamese died under his watch—but the tone of the conversation was striking. Duch, a former mathematics teacher, is obviously a very smart man, and he answered questions in detail to provide the impression that he’s cooperating. He’s taking what a friend of mine calls the Eichmann defense—“Befehl ist Befehl” (orders are orders, essentially)—but of course, Duch gave many of the orders.

The tribunal involves some 30-odd lawyers, judges, civil party representatives from all over the world, and then ten older Cambodians in the back row for the civil parties themselves—these are the victims who feel confident enough to make their cases known—there are millions of victims in Cambodia, of course, but only 94 who have been identified and who have agreed to come forth for Duch’s tribunal. The day I was there, there were about 30 people in the audience (including myself), mostly young Westerners who seemed to be either reporting or taking notes for various human rights groups. At times the procedure of the tribunal—the “if it please the courts” and “thank you your honor”—was deadening. But ultimately the historic gravity of the situation won the day.

On Friday I spent the lunch hour (which is two hours here) at Toul Sleng. The former interrogation center is on a bustling urban street corner in the middle of the city, surrounded by mobile phone shops and restaurants and young Khmer on motorbikes. Housed in a former high school, the prison includes a yard with a gallows and several pull-up bars. The three concrete buildings have three stories each with balconies covered in barbed wire so that prisoners couldn’t jump. Many of the rooms were divided into cells too small to lie down in. One of the buildings exhibits reproductions of the photos that were taken of everyone who was killed there. The photos are striking in their humanity and at the same time their lack of it. All are portraits, like one would take for a passport, and many were taken with the use of a special chair with a metal rod at the back so that the victims would be in exactly the same posture for each photo. This impersonal touch is countered by the expressions. There are old people, children, young adults, individuals wide-eyed with fear, resigned, some dead already (literally), and some even, remarkably, smiling. One that stays with me is looking sideways, a smirking. After half an hour with them I was so numb I could hardly think .

The organization I am visiting here provides psychological support services to the civil parties (plaintiffs) and witnesses in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. They contact all civil parties, do an assessment, and follow up regularly with those who seem at risk for significant current distress. They work with the witness advocates to prepare witnesses for what they might feel in the courtroom, and are on call during testimony. The have a weekly call-in radio program to discuss the effects of testimony and the increased stress that some might feel during the trial even though the horror ended 30 years ago. Dr. Sothera, the psychiatrist in charge of the NGO’s tribunal psychological support program, explains that he sees the tribunal as not the end, but only the beginning. He says Cambodians have not yet talked about this time in their history with each other, and so they often wonder how it could have happened. Because there is no discussion, the younger generation looks down on its elders for letting it happen. The tribunal is the beginning of the conversation; the point is not necessarily justice, or at least not only justuce, but reconciliation–reconciliation with each other.

For more information on the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, see the official website.

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