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?

Ho New/Reuters

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."

Out of hundreds of hours of testimony from prison survivors, experts, and Duch himself, a clear and unnerving portrait of him emerged: this killer of thousands was, above all else, a good student. It seems to have been this quality, rather than greed or blood lust or even pure revolutionary fervor, that drove him to manage operations at S-21 so carefully, so meticulously, that only a handful of prisoners survived.

That's why everyone was stunned when, on the 77th and last day of his trial, Duch took on the most unlikely role of all: the bad student.

When called upon to give a final statement, he abruptly abandoned Roux's strategy of remorse and, and instead demanded that the court release and acquit him. Duch's behavior and public statements up to this point had been as good as a guilty plea, and his trial had seemed to be headed toward a predictable ending: a commuted sentence in exchange for cooperation, contrition and conversation.

But instead of apologizing once again to his victims, he launched into a dry, technical discourse on the history of the Communist Party in Cambodia and its leaders--which did not include him. He said that as he was not a senior leader he could not have been "most responsible" for crimes committed at S-21. He asked to be acquitted in the name of national reconciliation--the favored buzzword here for the process of integrating former Khmer Rouge cadres into Cambodian society.

Stunned judges asked him to clarify his statement. He obeyed: "I would like the chamber to release me."

Duch subsequently fired Roux and tried to replace him with a Chinese lawyer who understood Communism (Defendants at the tribunal, which is jointly administered by the Cambodian government and the UN, have the right to one local and one international lawyer). When a Chinese defender could not be procured, he engaged a second Cambodian. Together, the new defense team has pursued a one-note legal strategy: insisting over and over again that Duch was a mid-level cadre and therefore should not be prosecuted.

In July 2010, the tribunal found Duch guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 35 years in prison. (Due to mitigating circumstances and time served, he will spend less than 19 years in jail; prosecutors have called this figure "manifestly inadequate.")

Late last month, appeal hearings were held, bringing Duch before the court once again. Reading from copious handwritten notes and once again deftly reciting long strings of document ID numbers, he argued on his behalf better than his own bumbling lawyers, urging judges to release him "for the sake of national reconciliation among my people."

"You justice and truth for the Cambodian people as well as for the former Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres, especially the middle class who do not fall within the jurisdiction of this tribunal," he concluded.

It was a poor legal argument, but one that was cleverly phrased to echo the government's stance on the tribunal: that, in the name of national reconciliation, no further prosecutions will be allowed to take place, period. Hun Sen, Cambodia's strongman prime minister, who was himself a Khmer Rouge cadre before internal purges prompted him to flee to Vietnam in 1977, announced in 2009 that more trials could revive the civil war and kill "200,000 to 300,000 people."

Although United Nations prosecutors have identified five additional suspects they would like to see tried for genocide and war crimes, those cases have been stalled in the tribunal's investigation chamber, hindered by the fact that Cambodian staff refuse to participate in them. Court observers say the cases are likely to be dismissed soon.

Out of paranoia or pride, the government has also refused to allow several top officials who are former mid-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge to give evidence before the tribunal, although none of them has been implicated in crimes. Hun Sen flatly told visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in October that no new trials would be permitted. Neither Mr Ban nor the international community, which funds the court's multi-million dollar budget, seemed to particularly care.

Because of all this behind-the-scenes political wrangling, Duch's dramatic change of stance has raised persistent whispers that he may now be taking orders from someone else--especially since his lead Cambodian counsel, Kar Savuth, also happens to be Hun Sen's family lawyer. But a large part of his turnabout can likely be attributed to his idiosyncratic personality. With his penchant for calculation, astonishing head for detail, and incapacity to process human emotion, he often comes across as mildly autistic. Decades after he committed his crimes, Duch is still unable to understand how the behaviors he values most--dedication to a higher cause, unfailing obedience to superiors, and pride in a job well done--can be entirely wrong.

Given his defiant new stance, his victims are unlikely to get the contrition they seek. But thanks to Duch¹s loquacity throughout the trial, and his obsession with getting the facts right, Cambodia and the world have gleaned not just a fuller understanding of the machinery of death he headed, but also a portrait of one brutal regime's slavishly obedient, ferociously meticulous executioner.