Khmer Rouge Prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, who ran one of the regime’s most notorious and brutal prisons that resulted in the torture and deaths of thousands of Cambodians, died on Wednesday, according to a spokesperson for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
The 77-year old former head of the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, better known as Comrade Duch, was admitted to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh on Tuesday and succumbed to “bronchitis and chronic lung disease”, according to a statement by Kandal Provincial Court on Wednesday.
He was serving a life sentence at Kandal Provincial Prison after becoming one of the first “most responsible” officials of the Khmer Rouge to be convicted by the Extraordinary Chamber in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC), a United Nations-backed court designated to prosecute those responsible for crimes committed during regime’s rule from 1975 to 1979.
Kaing Guek Eav was convicted by the hybrid tribunal in 2010 for crimes against humanity, murder and torture and initially sentenced to 35 years in prison, which was extended to life without appeal by a higher court in 2012.
Duch and his defense team pleaded guilty for the crime but refuted the legal definition designating him as a “most responsible” Khmer Rouge official under ECCC’s jurisdiction.
During a trial proceeding in August 2009, Duch said all the records and stories of victims and survivors at the security center he directed would serve as “historical facts” of crimes committed by the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
“The historical truth differs from the nature of flowers,” Duch said on August 17, 2009. “The flower has its life spans that it blooms and it later dies. But historical truth remains. It does not blossom or die. The truth lasts forever.”
“I would like to confirm that I am both morally and legally responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, and I am also morally answerable for the crimes committed throughout the country. I will never make any denial – not a word.”
Duch converted to Christianity in 1996 by a Cambodian-American pastor Christopher Chapel. At one ECCC hearing in 2009, he compared himself to Saint Stephen, who is venerated as the first martyr of Christianity, and said he would accept a public stoning much like his biblical reference.
Despite his conversion to Christianity, Duch’s body was sent for cremation on Wednesday at Chak Angre Krom pagoda – 12 hours after his death and in the presence of his family, who refused to talk to the media. The cremation was completed and the family members left with Duch’s ashes by 3 p.m.
The Khmer Rouge official’s rhetoric and statements at ECCC, which included pleading guilty for crimes he was charged of committing, was just a “tactic” to persuade survivors and judges into reducing his sentencing, said Chhang Youk, director at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an organization documenting the Khmer Rouge period.
For Chhang Youk, Duch left a “notorious legacy”.
After Duch was sentenced to life in prison, DC-CAM conducted interviews with convicted Khmer Rouge official, which was documented in the 2014 publication, “When The Criminal Laughs.”
“We believe that he has never shown any feelings of regrets,” Youk said about the interviews. “What he said in courts ran contradictory to what he perceived privately, outside of the courtroom. He showed dishonesty towards the victims.”
Born in 1942, Duch came from an ethnic Chinese-Cambodian family in Kampong Thom province, and studied mathematics before becoming a teacher at a local school.
After joining the Khmer Rouge, Duch was first assigned to run the M-13 security center and tasked with interrogating prisoners of war and suspected spies. He then continued this same work at the notorious Tuol Sleng detention center, which was converted to an interrogation center from a school.
At Tuol Sleng, Duch was responsible for the deaths of at least 12,272 detainees, who were subjected to torture, forced confessions, starvation, and executions. Duch fled to remain at Thai-Cambodian borders, and kept a low profile till Irish journalist Nic Dunlop identified him in 1999, shortly before his arrest.
Duch was transferred from ECCC’s holding center to Kandal Provincial Prison in 2013, where he spent his days in a solitary 5-meter-by-5-meter cell with a separate private restroom, according to the prison’s director, Chat Sineang.
A voluntary male prisoner – who was scrutinized by prosecutors and whose identity was concealed – was tasked to be Duch’s cellmate and look after the aging man, Chat Sineang added.
“It was for the sake of his security that we had to protect and ensure that he would not be harmed by anyone,” Chat Sineang said.
Duch left some 20 reading books inside his cell as of time of his death, Chat Sineang said, many of which are about history and memoirs.
“He was easy-going and was never a trouble-making prisoner. That could be understood for his high education that directed him toward modesty and being disciplinary living here.”
There were no tourists at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum on Wednesday, largely on account of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has reduced incoming travelers to a trickle.
But Norng Chanphal, 50, is always at the museum, where he sells a book detailing his personal experiences under the Khmer Rouge.
He was only nine when he was brought to Tuol Sleng, with his mother and younger brother. This was days before the Vietnamese-led overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Norng Chanphal’s father was brought there a week prior to his arrival amid an internal purge conducted at the end of Democratic Kampuchea, which was the government run by the Khmer Rouge.
“Duch gets what he deserves for what he did on his own compatriots,” Chanphal said as he looked at the buildings where he was once detained. Chanphal said he could now “forgive” the dead prison chief.
Ban Ny, a 21-year-old tuk tuk driver from Siem Reap province, said he was visiting the former prison for the very first time on Wednesday. On hearing about Duch’s death, Ban Ny said he felt the former prison chief was a brutal man and that while Kaing Guek Eav was punished it could not be compared to the atrocities committed.
No justice is possible to serve here, Ban Ny said. “It is just impossible. We cannot bring these people who died back to life. It is just too little too late.”