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Authors: Thierry Cruvellier

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BOOK: The Master of Confessions
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One day, Bou Meng was taken to Building D. He was electrocuted until he lost consciousness. They woke him by throwing water on him. But he still didn't talk. So, weary of waiting, his tormentors ended up writing his confession for him. All he had to do was sign. Remembering this, he says he would've preferred to die of malaria in the jungle. Then he massages his forehead with Tiger Balm:

I don't remember what was in my confession. I had conflicted feelings at the time. I was fearful, I was worried, I did what I was ordered to do. They had absolutely no reason to suspect me of being a CIA or KGB agent. I signed with my hand. But in my heart of hearts, I did not confess.


and the thin, delicate lips that so often grace the Khmer people. You can see the muscles of his strong back through his jacket. At fifty-eight, his hair has yet to turn gray. He lost an ear to the war. Like Him Huy and much of the staff at S-21, he was a soldier in the 703 Division of the Khmer Rouge Army. Then he served first as a guard outside the prison—near the canal on Street 360, where Vann Nath was driven before being escorted on foot into the prison proper. Next, possibly toward the end of 1976, Prak Khan became an interrogator. He learned how to interrogate on the job, by watching others and attending the training sessions set up by Duch and run by his deputies, Mam Nai and Pon. Prak Khan learned what “CIA” and “KGB” meant—like most of his victims, he had never heard of them before. In court, he admits that he still wasn't completely clear who the enemy was, even after the training sessions.

He learned the procedures, politics, and the use of torture. The goal, he explains, was to know how to inflict pain on a person without killing them. In theory, at least, the interrogations were strictly regulated. Beating someone to death was forbidden. Some of the techniques taught included electrocution, whipping, asphyxiation with a plastic bag, and inserting needles under the victims' nails. Waterboarding and venomous insects weren't on the list, says Prak Khan. “We told the prisoners not to make any noise, not to swear, and not to cry out while we tortured them.”

The objective was to learn the names of the other traitors in a given network. Prak Khan dealt with low-level prisoners, not those that the Party considered important. The interrogators were divided into “cold teams,” “hot teams,” and somewhere in between, “chewing teams.” The “cold” interrogators obtained confessions through questioning alone.

“The cold method was to understand the person,” explains Duch. “I don't believe the other interrogators pursued this method to the extent that I did. In principle, according to my training, interrogators had to try to persuade the prisoners first by speaking with them before actually resorting to torture. But often they focused more on the torture.”

The “hot” interrogators used electrocution and any other cruel methods they found effective. As for the “chewing” team, says Prak Khan, who was a member, their instructions were to “interrogate in-depth.”

But Chum Mey dismisses all these distinctions: “Torture is always hot. It is never cold or lukewarm, it's always hot.”

. He seems serene. Though the court is in recess, he remains in the courtroom, making notes and underlining passages. He looks up, flashes a sparkling smile, and starts a conversation with the Cambodian assistant to his defense team. After about ten minutes, he slips out. The filmmaker Rithy Panh enters the public gallery and sits in his usual place on the left side of the front row. The trial is being broadcast on the screen nearby. Rithy Panh watches carefully. The film made by the court is of very poor quality and has become an ever-growing source of irritation to him.

Outside the courtroom, the tribunal's Public Affairs Section tries to satisfy the media's appetite and offer it more scintillating distractions. Sometimes this leads to blunders—for instance, the day they put a cousin of Pol Pot's, who had been bused in to watch the trial, in front of journalists during the lunch recess. The Public Affairs people had promised the media Pol Pot's brother. But the brother wasn't there, so they threw this cousin to the lions. She had never even met Pol Pot, a.k.a. “Brother Number One.”

“I believe this court will do justice to those who perished,” she said meekly.

Rithy Panh was fuming.

“What was Pol Pot's favorite food?” he said bitterly.

The impromptu press conference quickly degenerated. The relentless pressure from the microphones and cameras pushed this peasant woman to tears. She felt completely lost, she said.

“This is a disgrace!” thundered Rithy Panh. “You've reduced this poor woman to tears, and she didn't even know Pol Pot! Are you mad? Let her go home!”

Duch has now returned to the courtroom, his hands in his pockets. He starts talking to his defense team. A judge walks in without his robes, the garment that elevates lawyers to demigods. He summons one of his legal assistants, then leaves the courtroom only to return a moment later wearing his hallowed garment. The trial resumes. The villagers return to the public gallery. The guard on duty today—his shirt the shade of UN blue, intended to reflect the organization's mercy—wakes two dozing peasant women. They laugh with a reassuring lightness when he gets their attention. The psychologist who examined Duch is sitting among them. She is here to update her assessment. Duch stares at her through the glass wall. His piercing gaze wavers. He snaps out of it and, relaxing his face, brings his attention back to the proceedings.

“Did you see Duch torture a female prisoner?” a judge asks Prak Khan.

“I didn't see it clearly. I don't think he did. He just interrogated her. Others tortured her. Dek Bou beat her and electrocuted her. He suffocated her until she passed out.”

Without taking his eyes off the witness, Duch leans forward and pours himself a glass of water. He is fully present now; he has recovered his usual intensity.

“Sometimes Duch would come by to ask if the prisoner had confessed yet,” says Prak Khan.

An interrogator would never draft an incomplete confession, explains the former interrogator. A confession was deemed suitable only when the interrogator had clearly identified a network of traitors. Once he had his list of people, he gave his report to his superior, who checked it, then passed it on to Duch, who, like the schoolteacher that he is, made notes in the margins in red ink. Once the confession was deemed complete, the prisoner was taken from the brick-walled isolation cell back to one of the group cells, where he would remain until his execution. According to Prak Khan, more than half the prisoners were never interrogated. They went straight to the killing fields.

When Prak Khan says that he could read a little French at the time but that he has forgotten it since, a smile creeps across Duch's face. He smiles often during his former subordinate's time on the stand, his expression turning into a muted leer of condescension whenever Prak Khan displays his limited education. And when the witness's story veers into implausibility, Duch looks up at the ceiling and smirks in disbelief. Whenever he lets down his guard, Duch finds it difficult to control his laughter. As the next recess is called, Duch stares at Prak Khan awhile, obviously resisting the urge to laugh, before getting up and leaving the courtroom.

Along with Him Huy, Prak Khan is one of the greatest threats to Duch's case. Duch's response is to eyeball them both in the courtroom, to carry out a silent campaign as fierce in its intent as their testimony against him is devastating. Waiting for the judges to return at the end of recess, Duch stares at the former interrogator, a wry smile on his face. Prak Khan doesn't dare meet the gaze he surely feels against the back of his neck like a cold blade. Duch lets his eyes wander away, and looks over the vast and packed public gallery.

Prak Khan and Him Huy have been telling their stories for years. To this day, they agree to virtually every interview request, which means that for three decades, their memories have been spurred and goaded to the point that they almost certainly generate many speculative and spurious claims alongside the verifiable ones. One of the law's most common—and most mutable—tasks is to separate facts from fictions that inhabit our memories. The conflicted and incriminating memories of torturers and executioners are trickier still.

A case in point: prior to Duch's trial, Prak Khan said that he had seen Duch personally administer electric shocks to prisoners, which is the only such evidence against the defendant. But Prak Khan won't repeat it in court. Instead, he either shifts the blame onto another interrogator or else claims he can't remember. And indeed, by the trial's close, the resolution of the most serious allegations leveled directly at Duch—including Him Huy's testimony about what took place in the killing fields of Choeung Ek and Prak Khan's claims of what went on in the interrogation rooms of S-21—appears to depend more on personal conviction (I believe / I don't believe) than on the legal burden of proof (it happened / it didn't happen).

Him Huy and Prak Khan risk nothing: they won't face trial. But, like Duch, they're trying to untangle their memories.

“I didn't participate in torture, but I saw other prisoners tortured until they passed out,” says Prak Khan.

It's always somebody else; somebody who's now dead.

The trouble is that Prak Khan has previously admitted that “chewing” included torture. He has also admitted, though not in court, that he himself tortured prisoners by electrocution, by beatings, and with animal traps. A judge reminds him of this: “Do you wish to comment, or do you choose the right to remain silent?”

“I do not want to add anything. It reflects the truth.”

to articulate, let alone take responsibility for. Though we have good reason to decry the torturers' failure to speak the truth, the temptation to omit and obfuscate the unpalatable preys on us all. Who among us has not been tricked by his own memory or perception? In court, not even the victims speak “nothing but the truth.” No one ever speaks “nothing but the truth.”

A courtroom is a place of high drama and strong emotion, where truths emerge and stories reach their dramatic climaxes. But it can also be a terribly sterile place and the source of great disappointment. With Prak Khan, it's the latter. In Rithy Panh's famous 2003 film,
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
, we see Prak Khan talking about drawing blood from prisoners; we hear him describe how he considered the detainees to be nothing more than animals; we hear how he disassociated himself from his actions. Compared to what he said to the camera, the testimony he gives in court is dismayingly benign. The terrible allegations he made on film are stifled in court, hidden behind his right to remain silent. In a canny move, Duch's defense team has threatened legal action against former S-21 personnel. That they could pursue such a course is highly unlikely, but the threat alone is deterrent enough. Which truth, then, should we believe—the legal truth or the filmed one? Some of Prak Khan's and Him Huy's “memories,” either imagined or based on hearsay, vanish the moment they take an oath to speak the truth.

Duch denies Prak Khan's assertion that he regularly attended interrogations. He reminds us that everyone adhered to the strict hierarchy he had instituted at S-21. The clerk Suor Thi was very much at the prison's nerve center, for example, yet he had no personal contact with Duch, its head. To get a message to Duch, he had to pass through Hor, the second-in-command at S-21. Suor Thi never received a direct order from Duch—whom he called “Brother East” because Duch was situated on the east side of the prison. Suor Thi feared Hor, “Brother West,” but he also knew that Brother West was afraid of Brother East. What he didn't know was who Brother East, a.k.a. Duch, was frightened of.

“That was beyond what I could know,” he says.

Like the prison's other officers, Suor Thi regularly saw his colleagues get arrested and disappear. Fear was omnipresent. Everyone was terrified. More than 150 S-21 officers were victims of purges at their own prison.

Prak Khan's lower rank prevented him from reporting directly to Duch, explains Duch. He had to go through an intermediary.

Duch says evenly:

He couldn't go over his supervisor's head to talk to me. If I had discussed the slightest thing with Prak Khan without going through my deputies, what was the point of having them? I didn't have the time to give instructions to each individual interrogator, including Prak Khan. I had never met [him] or even heard his name until January 7, 1979. He was a low-level member of staff. I spent some time trying to understand his life story.

Duch stands when addressing the court. His face is gaunt and he looks old and tired. He summons his energy, then says in a conciliatory tone:

I believe Prak Khan's testimony, wherever it leads. There's a lot in it that's false, but I think this is the result of fear. Back then, you were afraid that I would have you arrested. Now, like me, you are afraid of having to face the tribunal. But I neither wish for nor need my subordinates to appear by my side before this court. I am responsible for what happened at S-21.

At this moment, an old revolutionary habit catches Duch off guard: he raises his hand in a military salute. He goes on to list the errors and extrapolations in Prak Khan's testimony, before admonishing: “Never say anything without material proof! You are making subjective claims without any supporting documentation.”

Presiding judge Nil Nonn calls Duch to order. Judge Cartwright pulls out a document. It's dated February 1976 and comprises the minutes of a meeting of Phnom Penh's defense force, when Duch's job was to teach Party doctrine. The document quotes him as saying, “Forget the idea that beating a prisoner is cruel. There's no place for kindness in such cases. You must beat them for national, international, and class reasons.”

BOOK: The Master of Confessions
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