He has greyer hair and fewer teeth than he did during his own trial three years ago, but Comrade Duch’s personality seems little changed. He manages to be both supercilious and obsequious as he testifies in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 002.
By Julia Wallace, Phnom Penh
At each question, he thanks his interlocutor lavishly, then turns to the Trial Chamber’s chief judge to say, “I would most respectfully like to inform you, Mr. President, that…” before offering a response. This deferential refrain has punctuated Duch’s three weeks of testimony so far, even as he chides lawyers whose questions he considers stupid, leading, irrelevant or hypothetical. He also flaunts his steel-trap memory, effortlessly rattling off six-digit document identification numbers, referring to witnesses by their numerical pseudonyms, and recalling the precise dates of events from over 30 years ago.
But while he is as zealous as ever, Duch’s task this time round is different. Rather than detailing his motivations for overseeing the torture and murder of nearly 13,000 prisoners at the helm of S-21 prison, he is now a key witness in court to assist prosecutors by testifying against his former Khmer Rouge bosses. By the looks of it, he has taken on his new assignment with gusto, particularly when it comes to incriminating Nuon Chea, former deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Brothers in law
Although Nuon Chea was his direct superior, there is little love lost between the two men, who have apparently been at odds since Nuon Chea reprimanded Duch in 1983 for failing to destroy thousands of documents detailing murder and torture at S-21. Those documents have become key evidence in the prosecution of both Duch and the regime’s senior leaders - but Duch, proud of his reputation for meticulousness, does not seem to have ever recovered from the dressing-down.
During his first full day of testimony on March 20, Duch immediately implicated Nuon Chea, telling judges he reported directly to the man known as “Brother Number Two” about forced confessions extracted from tortured prisoners at S-21. Since then he has repeatedly placed Nuon Chea at the top of the Khmer Rouge chain of command, along with Pol Pot. His revelations sparked an angry courtroom outburst from Nuon Chea, who interrupted proceedings to tell judges that Duch’s testimony was worthless. “People never use rotten wood to craft or carve a Buddha sculpture for people to pay homage to,” he said.
A “hypocrite” scholar
Just before Duch’s testimony, Nuon Chea filed a motion accusing Duch of attempting to murder him in their shared detention facility. Calling Duch a “hypocrite witness” who offered the court “unreliable testimony,” Nuon Chea requested that the door to his cell be kept locked to foil the would-be assassin.
Duch, meanwhile, has spent much of his time in prison attempting to re-invent himself as a scholar. Recently he published via the court’s website a 56-page original report entitled “A Study: Lessons Learned from the Experiences of the Elders of Former Generations.” The document is signed, simply, “A Researcher.” In it he emphasises that Nuon Chea, the regime’s chief ideologue, was in charge of implementing all policies devised by Pol Pot and took an active role in purging party cadres.
But Duch’s new-found dedication to scholarship may end up discrediting him. He has been drawing fast and furious objections from defence teams, who say the former maths teacher is trying to fashion himself into an expert witness. “His testimony is now a composite of what he may have known, what he learned from 1979-1998, from documents from his lawyers, by reading the prosecution narrative of the introductory submissions… the testimony of witnesses, books by academics, journalists, etc,” said Michael Karnavas, a defence lawyer for former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary.
Nothing to tell
Ever meticulous, Duch was forced to admit he spent most of the regime cloistered at S-21 prison and had little direct knowledge of the regime’s inner workings, despite his evident desire to tell prosecutors everything they want to hear. “My testimony is based on the truth, but my knowledge evolves,” he said on March 20 after an objection by Karnavas. “If you only want me to talk about what I knew back then, I am afraid I may not have anything to tell the world.”