The Eccentricity of Evil: A Khmer Rouge Leader Goes on Trial

How did a math teacher come to help orchestrate one of the worst genocides since the Holocaust?


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If a courtroom is a theater, the star of the show at Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal for the past two years has been a gaunt and balding former math teacher whose favorite word to describe himself is "meticulous."

Kaing Guek Eav, best known by the revolutionary alias Duch, is also a war criminal and mass killer. He has freely admitted he was responsible for the murder of over 12,000 people as head of the Khmer Rouge secret police and commandant of the S-21 security center, where perceived enemies of the regime were sent to be tortured into submission and "smashed." Over two years and ten months at the helm of the notorious prison, Comrade Duch ordered his captives to be waterboarded, their genitals electrocuted, and their toenails pulled out before sending nearly all of them, blindfolded, to be stabbed in the neck or clubbed to death in a field outside of Phnom Penh.

The case initially looked like a slam dunk -- a simple trial that could be wrapped up fast, initiating a cathartic national discussion in a country that was mired in civil war with the Khmer Rouge until 1998. The evidence against Duch, after all, was overwhelming: when the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh in January 1979, Duch--a compulsive record-keeper -- left behind thousands of forced confessions that he had annotated in red ink: "beat her 40 times with the rattan stick," "medical experiment," "smash them to pieces." In the confessions, known as "autobiographies," Duch's prisoners inevitably admit to being agents of the KGB, CIA or the Vietnamese government and to having undermined the regime's radical plans for agricultural productivity and social harmony. The documents are mesmerizing today for their utter implausibility (one 19-year-old nurse, after being tortured, claimed the CIA had sent her on a mission to defecate in the operating theater of a Phnom Penh military hospital).

It was partly because of this extensive evidence that the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal--established in 2006 to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime and "those most responsible" for crimes committed under it--decided to prosecute Duch first. The regime's four top living leaders--including "Brother Number 2" Nuon Chea and Foreign Minister Ieng Sary--remain in jail awaiting the beginning of their own trial this summer. They are all older and frailer than Duch, further removed from the killings, and far less contrite, having largely denied the accusations against them.

Duch's trial, which unfolded over the course of nine months in 2009, at first proceeded smoothly. Following a strategy devised by Francois Roux, his French defense lawyer and an experienced practitioner of judicial stagecraft, Duch apologized to his victims dozens of times, sometimes in dramatically self-lacerating fashion.

Under Roux's tutelage, Duch cried in court, made a tearful pilgrimage to the Killing Fields, and even--after an extended and theatrical courtroom dialogue with his lawyer--invited victims to visit him in his jail cell. It was an elaborate defense modeled on the precedent of Albert Speer--the Nazi architect who escaped a death sentence at Nuremberg because of his acceptance of moral responsibility.

Throughout the trial, Duch systematically upstaged everyone with his extraordinarily active participation in his own defense, and his odd zeal for setting the record straight, even at his own expense. Never deviating from a math-teacherish uniform of slacks and button-down shirts, he offered the court extensive commentary and analysis on his own life and character, and at times made helpful corrections -- serving variously as historian, analyst, mathematician, expert witness, character witness and trial monitor.

Nearly every day he would rise, clutching a binder full of the court documents and mimeographed S-21 confessions he had been poring over, to highlight inaccuracies in witness testimony, correct the courtroom translators, or admonish lawyers for repetitive questioning. He frequently recited eight-digit documentation ID numbers from memory, while some lawyers struggled to produce the numbers at all.

Inexact figures seemed to irk him in particular. When a prosecutor referred to a length of time as "26 or 27 years," Duch retorted, "Could you please make a proper mathematical calculation?" Earlier, he told judges that had selected his revolutionary name from a children's book about a very obedient child called Duch. "I liked the name Duch because I wanted to be a well-disciplined boy who respected the teachers, who wanted to do good deeds," he said. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

Duch explained to the court that he was chosen to be a prison chief because of his ability "to pay attention to whatever I was assigned to do meticulously." "In my entire life, if I do something I'll do it properly," he said.

The Open Society Justice Initiative wrote in a report on the trial, "Duch's behavior at trial again displayed a desire to be seen as exceedingly cooperative with the court, as if he were attempting to exchange his old role with that of the perfect defendant." A particularly telling moment, the report continued, "occurred when Duch thanked expert David Chandler for praising his professionalism in running S-21, seemingly still believing that professionalism in the running of a torture and execution camp was a high compliment."

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Julia Wallace is a writer living in Phnom Penh.

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