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