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Authors: Thierry Cruvellier

The Master of Confessions

BOOK: The Master of Confessions
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Note to the Reader









































Historical Milestones

Note on Sources


About the Author

Also by Thierry Cruvellier



About the Publisher


All citations and testimonies are quoted from the trial unless otherwise noted. Testimonies have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Please refer to
Historical Milestones
for a historical overview of Cambodia and to
Note on Sources
for a detailed note on sources.


My name is Kaing Guek Eav. I took the name Duch when I joined the Revolution. I wanted to liberate my people—my parents, my family, myself. Instead, my country was engulfed by tragedy and more than 1.7 million people died. As a man—as someone who believes in justice—I see now that the party I belonged to, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was responsible. But back then, you couldn't challenge it. There was no way out. I had to follow orders.

My main objective was to interrogate people. I never killed anyone with my own hands. If I hadn't been there, someone else would have taken my place. But it was me: I had a pen, I made notes, I tried to write impartial reports to submit to my superiors, but they wanted confessions that led to more arrests. I sacrificed everything for the Revolution, and back then I believed in what I was doing. I was proud at the time. But as I look back now, it makes me shudder. The fact that I killed more than twelve thousand people makes me feel ashamed.

Like many Khmers, Duch has a small build. His narrow shoulders make him seem especially slight. He's sixty-seven years old and, like many old men, has a potbelly, which he covers by hiking up his pants to his navel, stretching them up and over his paunch rather than buckling his belt beneath it. He moves quickly but with a stiffness in his chest and arms, which is perhaps the result of his years as a soldier of Communism, or perhaps simply from the passage of time.

The courtroom has a large, wooden, horseshoe-shaped witness stand. When speaking from it, Duch tends to focus on some indeterminate spot up to his left, which the filmmaker Rithy Panh calls his “blind spot.” Panh tells me he does this because it helps him concentrate and stay in control.

Duch tends to breathe heavily through his nose mid-sentence, giving the impression that he's speaking underwater or through an oxygen mask. He's not known to suffer from asthma or any other respiratory trouble, yet sometimes after speaking he'll falter with his mouth open, as though trying to catch his breath. When he is nervous—which rarely happens—he rubs his face vigorously with the palm of his hand.

When I joined the Revolution, I was trained for secrecy. You had to keep your supervisor's identity secret; you didn't reveal who your subordinate was. If you killed people, or if you ordered people killed, that had to remain a secret, along with the number of people. Later, I heard the saying: “The better you keep secrets, the better you survive.” We used to say that half the battle was keeping things secret. Say nothing, hear nothing, see nothing. Secrecy: that was my top priority when I was training people. The recruits were no good—they talked a lot. But I was very strict. Even my deputy was no match for me.

Duch sucks air through his nose.

“That's it.”

Age has weathered Duch's face favorably. His ears seem too large for his head and peel away from it at their tips, emphasizing the sharp angles of his face. The dark tint of his full and well-defined lips looks almost purple on the television screen. Sometimes, when he's sitting there with his mouth hanging open, waiting for the interpreter to finish, his eyes narrow until his pupils disappear and his high cheekbones accentuate the bags beneath them, and true age marks his face. His smile reveals crooked and severely decayed teeth and lends him a youthfulness that, in Duch's case at least, is less flattering than old age. His gaze is intense but strangely veiled, bright and glassy at the same time. Arched in the middle, as though by invisible pins, his discreet eyebrows form an inverted V, giving his eyes a haunted look, as in a person who has recently had cataract surgery. On any given day, the lines on his face can appear either deeply engraved or ironed flat, his eyes either wide-open or shrunken to slits. Once, while trying to identify the wife of a witness, he puckered his mouth until his lips curled at the corners, and I couldn't tell if he was expressing skepticism or stifled contempt. Both reactions come naturally to him.

Though generally stiff and erect, Duch does have his offhand moments. At one point, while listening to a former subordinate, he smiles, folds his foot beneath him, and slumps into his seat, as though abruptly released from his usual sense of decorum. From the witness box, the former guard describes Duch as “a firm, serious, and very meticulous man,” a heavy smoker with whom the guard had never dared joke around but whom he had seen erupt into fits of laughter at least once.

“Are you frightened of him now?” asks one of the five judges.

“No. I'm not frightened of him.”

When another one of the judges, a woman, describes Duch as intelligent, educated, hardworking, enthusiastic, attentive to detail, methodical, professional, eager to excel, willing to please his superiors, and generally proud of his work, Duch agrees.

Duch is also endowed with a prodigious, though selective, memory, as well as a bitter sense of history.

He notes, “The words ‘meticulous,' ‘hardworking,' and ‘determined' used to describe me would be considered virtues if spoken in the context of a government that loves its country and its people. But the government I served was the opposite: it was a cruel and criminal machine, and in this context, these words are painful to hear.”

It only takes Duch a moment to gauge his interlocutor and adjust his behavior accordingly. To a respectful young Khmer woman asking challenging questions, he lowers his voice almost to a murmur, whereas to a hostile foreign lawyer he replies in a cold and confident tone. He knows how to adapt his speech and rhetoric. In a single session, for instance, he delivers long and convoluted responses to a Cambodian prosecutor, then gives a brief aside to a foreign prosecutor, then nothing but curt and sharp answers to a European lawyer representing civil parties.

Duch is generally prepared to cooperate and provide details. But he's also perfectly capable of giving terse yes or no answers, which the prosecutors and victims' representatives try unsuccessfully and often ineptly to draw out. For almost eight years, Duch's job was to interrogate his adversaries: to make them talk, either voluntarily or by force. His grasp of human psychology, of the dynamics of interrogation and power relationships make him a tough, well-armed opponent at his own trial. And he can count on Kar Savuth and François Roux, the Cambodian and French lawyers, respectively, who constitute his experienced and coordinated legal team.

If his interrogators in the courtroom prove diffident or incompetent, Duch quickly takes the upper hand. And even if he doesn't win the battle, his opponent nevertheless loses it, which brings a scornful smirk to Duch's face. Appearing confident and relaxed, Duch is dismissive of the counsel for civil parties, whom for the most part he judges to be beneath him and who, smug because they have power and he does not, quickly find themselves lambasted, reduced, and demeaned by the very man they want to cut down. Duch will fall, of course—but when?

Duch sometimes gets carried away. For instance, when faced with a weak or ineffective line of questioning, he can react both snidely and with insolence—two highly unfavorable traits in a court of law. On rare occasions, he also feigns a clumsy false cheer, as when he affects a friendly attitude toward one of the three survivors from his prison. You feel embarrassed for him when, at such moments, he is overcome by nervous laughter and has to hold his hand over his mouth until it stops.

At times Duch is also impressionable. In a rare moment when the trial's focus veers from its usual litany of barbarism to a disputed point of actual law, the lawyers and prosecutors are visibly delighted. Glee illuminates the faces of the more eloquent among them as they indulge in a little courtroom grandstanding. When one of them leans down to whisper to a colleague, he brings to mind a giant black flamingo, his robes flowing about him, elbows thrust back like folded wings. Duch, sitting silently behind his legal team, clearly enjoys and admires the legal sparring and nimble mind games.

The former keeper of the Party's secrets is as energetic and talkative as he is loath to display emotion. Still, some circumstances and names get to him. When they do, you hear him swallow and sniff, you see his jaw clench and his lower lip suck the upper one in, you hear a muffled groan and see his face contort as he fights back the tears. He stays like that, his upper lip shrouded by the lower one as though stuck to his teeth, his eyebrows raised, his eyes wide-open and pleading for help. On one Friday, after a week of particularly gruesome testimony, Duch again speaks of being crushed by shame. He turns away with his eyes to the ceiling, and you can see the turmoil he's in.

“I'm stopping now,” he says without breaking down.

Yet though his shield has been pierced and it seems he has at last been broken, Duch proves remarkably resilient—he shows up the following Monday, looking not just strong but defiant.

stand out in my memory. The first is of the moment when, while recounting to the court the day he swore total loyalty and devotion to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the Khmer name for Cambodia), he stood and gave the official revolutionary salute, his arm bent at a right angle, his closed fist held level with his head, with an intensity and conviction that appeared undiminished some thirty years after the fall of the regime. It's a terrifying image, one that reveals the depth of conviction possessed by a man described in court by psychologists as capable of entertaining “only one idea and only one thought at a time.”

The other image was captured before Duch's trial began. During the pretrial investigation, the investigators wanted to interrogate Duch in the S-21 prison, the death mill he managed in Phnom Penh from 1975 to 1979. Over the course of a long, painful, and laborious morning, Duch, the three still-living survivors of S-21, and a handful of former guards, interrogators, and torturers tried to “reconstruct” the crime scene. The foreigners working alongside the Cambodians at the court were already sweating in the February sun, though it wasn't yet the furnace that is Phnom Penh in April, when light vaporizes the city's colors into one sultry haze. It was approaching noon, and Duch was standing in the middle of one of the interior courtyards at S-21. His brow was low and straight, without the furrow that gives him a haunted look. In his eyes, you could detect torment caused by some painful question. His eyelids crinkled so that they looked like small waves, gentle rollers washing ashore at his temples. His half-open mouth allowed a glimpse of his unattractive teeth. His face had an unresolved rather than tense expression. It was then that the hardline Communist official disappeared and an old man ravaged by inner demons appeared in his place. Duch looked up at the sky, torn between the fear of punishment and the urge to cry.

BOOK: The Master of Confessions
6.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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