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A catch-all hearing and a prosecution running out of steam

Written By vibykhmer on Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | 8:27 PM

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 11/08/2009: On Day 57 of Duch’s trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)
©John Vink/ Magnum


By Stéphanie Gée

Tuesday August 11th, Duch did not deny that witness Saom Meth used to be under his orders at S-21. Unsurprisingly, the accused rejected the former guard’s claim that he tortured prisoners himself and swore that if that had been the case, he would have made no secret of it. After this witness’ testimony, the Chamber proceeded to the chain reading of the minutes of other witnesses’ hearings. By late morning, the international co-Prosecutor was rebuffed by the judges for an inopportune intervention. After the lunch break, a new face was on show. It was no longer Anees Ahmed who represented the prosecution, but another of his colleagues, Belgian Vincent de Wilde, who made his first appearance as the fifth international co-Prosecutor in this trial. A strategy of the interchangeable that has failed to be fruitful until now.

Earlier in the day, civil party group 3 announced they renounced to the hearing of one or possibly two of their civil parties, who feature among those contested on the previous day by the accused. The latter expressed doubt that the relatives these parties represent were actually imprisoned at S-21.

A witness tired of being faced with his past statements
Saom Meth’s interrogation resumed with the co-Prosecutors. The Cambodian one asked him to reconfirm several points in the statement he made with the investigators of the office of the co-Investigating Judges. Did he witness the technique of the fan, which consisted in exposing a naked wet detainee to the air produced by one of those machines? The witness’ answer: what he said was true, he did “not invent anything.” When sometimes, Thuy [interrogator at the special prison] interrogated a detainee and failed to make him talk, did Duch then intervene to threaten the prisoner? “What I said is true.” Did he really see Duch give a couple of kicks to a prisoner while urging him to answer quickly? “What I said is the truth…” In his statement, Saom Meth also specified that the accused came everyday to the place where he was on guard duty. Did he confirm it? “When I made that statement, I was a little excessive. Please forgive me for that.” Also, he no longer said he witnessed with his own eyes a practice consisting in piercing prisoners’ nails with needles.

Was Saom Meth afraid of Duch? “Of course […]! Out of the fifty members comprising the messengers unit [at S-21], only four or five stayed. The others disappeared. That’s when I started to fear him.” How did the accused behave with the guards? “He was not arrogant but smiling. Sometimes, he even laughed with them.”

Saom Meth saved by Him Huy?
Ty Srina, of civil party group 1, continued the interrogation following the same principle of verifying. The witness said he maintained what he had already declared to the office of the co-Investigating Judges. “Was there any mutual assistance at S-21?”, the young woman asked him, referring to the fact that former cadre Him Huy (in charge of the transfer of prisoners to the Choeung Ek execution site) assigned him to farming work at Prey Sar (S-24) when he was at risk of knowing the same fate as his brother, who was arrested, sent to S-21 and executed. “It is true. He helped me. I don’t know if he did the same for other people.” Later, Saom Meth explained that Huy had advised him in that critical moment to “be strong and not say anything” and promised to help him with one instruction: conceal his connection to this brother fallen out of grace.

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 11/08/2009: The accused Duch on a screen in the ECCC press room
©John Vink/ Magnum

“What I saw and said is the truth,” the witness, slightly exasperated, said to the next lawyer, who also faced him with his previous statements. As for the Santebal rules, he did not see them written on the walls or a blackboard – like the one now displayed at the Tuol Sleng museum and which Duch attributed to the sole Vietnamese – but learned them during political meetings.

The defence satisfied with the witness’ answers
Turn to the defence. Kar Savuth asked him if he saw the accused kill a prisoner with his own hands. The witness answered negatively. Did he “ever receive instructions directly from Duch?” No, Saom Meth again replied, specifying that he obeyed only to his group leader. Duch’s lawyer welcomed the two replies with a “I thank you [for your statements]” filled with contentment. No, the witness was not happy at all with his work “because people were arrested and killed.” “I thank you for declaring that you were not happy with your work at S-21,” Kar Savuth commented on the same tone.

Duch contests: “If I had tortured, I would not have denied it”
Time for the observations of the accused. Duch recognised that Saom Meth was a guard at the Special Unit of S-21. “Overall, [his testimony] reflected the truth. However, regarding the allegation I came to torture prisoners where Thuy worked [made by Saom Meth on the previous day in court], I would not have denied it if I had done it. I want to establish things very clearly. As S-21 director, I committed serious crimes. I politically indoctrinated these people […] and passed on the criminal intentions of the CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] in my teachings, that is any person arrested by the party had to be considered an enemy. And this is one of the most serious crimes I committed. I am responsible for these more than 10,000 lives lost at S-21.”

Torture was not in his functions as S-21 director
Duch recalled having written and transmitted to his superiors documents highlighting the names of people whose arrest had not yet been decided by the Angkar. However, he nuanced, “whichever society we may live in, each person fulfils their task on the basis of the mission they are given. A guard could not be an interrogator, the same way an interrogator could not take some of his time to act as a guard. As S-21 director, I could not devote time to these tasks or people. It was not possible. I cannot deny it is a serious allegation to say I used to beat prisoners…”

The two times when the accused went to an interrogation room, it was Pon’s and not Thuy’s, whose violent methods against prisoners he was aware of, he claimed. Duch asked that a document be shown on the screen: they were the instructions he gave Thuy, a text carefully handwritten. “This document – recovered at S-21 – clearly shows that I did not go on site but I tried to encourage Thuy. However, the latter always believed he should refer to Pon.” Finally, the accused expressed his regrets to the witness and his family for the brother who was killed.

Reading of a long series of witness testimonies
From 11am to the end of the day, the clerks’ voice was heard for most of the time as they proceeded to the reading of minutes of testimonies of witnesses who were not summoned by the Chamber. The minutes were established by the investigators of the office of the co-Investigating Judges. Their reading continued until intoxicating the public’s ears.

First, there was Mok Setim, who was part of S-21 medical staff, after receiving a training in which he learned to “make medicinal remedies and ground medication.” He had to take care of prisoners so they could last until the end of interrogations. Among them, “thirty to forty” of them were pale because blood had been taken from them. He never saw Duch come and give orders. He acknowledged that most of the medication prescribed were not efficient.

After the reading was over, Kar Savuth noted for the defence that the witness confirmed that the S-21 medical staff members were “all male.” For his part, Duch repeated that the order to draw blood from prisoners came from his hierarchical superior Son Sen. It was difficult for him to determine if Mok Setim was a S-21 staff member or not.

No children seen at Choeung Ek
The second minutes concerned someone named Toy Teng, guard outside the S-21 detention centre before being transferred to the rice field at Prey Sar, after being accused following the arrest of one of his cousins. In a second hearing minutes, the witness declared he was sent together with his team to Choeung Ek and they had to dig pits, ensure the safety of the premises and “list the prisoners when they arrived and were executed.” “It could take a couple of days to dig a pit, according to the hardness of the soil.” The pits – “twenty or thirty” in all according to him – could each contain a dozen bodies. He never saw children brought to Choeung Ek. What was his state of mind when he worked at Choeung Ek ? “At the time, it was impossible not to do what you were told to do. It was a little like living with tigers.”

At the end of this reading, a civil party group 4 lawyer insisted on observing that this testimony was “clear.” “It appears that there was torture and execution.” A scoop… Defence counsel Kar Savuth then made his own comment. “It appears that [this witness] never saw the accused present at Choeung Ek.” Yet, if Toy Peng said he did not see Duch come to the execution site, he nuanced that even if he had, he would not have recognised him because he did not know Duch very well.

The international co-Prosecutor lectured by the judges
The international co-Prosecutor then wanted to shine. He invited the Chamber to ask the defence if they opposed or not the fact of not summoning the witnesses whose testimonies were read. The request was a flop. The president “did not understand very well” his rationale and recalled him that only the Chamber had the authority to decide to summon a witness or not. Nil Nonn called him to clarify himself. Anees Ahmed did it again. This time, judge Lavergne expressed his surprise. “This issue has already been discussed repeatedly,” he recalled: during the trial management meeting, in which the defence said they renounced the hearing of said witness in court; and again, last week, when the defence again confirmed they would not ask the witness to come to the trial. “So, I do not understand very well what is the sense of the request presented today by the co-Prosecutors…” Anees Ahmed was put in his place and his observation rejected. He did not prolong the discussion.

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 11/08/2009: The court building at the ECCC
©John Vink/ Magnum

Although he did not know Toy Peng’s face before meeting him during the reconstruction at Choeung Ek early 2008, Duch leaned towards believing he was a S-21 staff member.

An accused in contact with Democratic Kampuchea leaders?
The hearing of Som Sam Ol, former messenger with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Khmer Rouge, was read. He reported he saw Duch participate in 1977 “to a weekly meeting at Ministry B1 with Ieng Sary, Pol Pot, Son Sen, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok. Duch often participated to meetings with higher echelon members […], until the liberation. […] I knew about it because I was on the floor below the one where these meetings were held.” At Duch’s wedding at the house of the accused, which this witness said he was invited to, he noted the presence of “Son Sen, Nuon Chea and Ieng Thirith.” “So, I think that Duch was an important person since important people attended his wedding. And I think everyone knew the S-21 centre and the nature of Duch’s work because he was quite open about it.” About Duch, he said he had “noted he liked his work because every time I met him, he was always smiling and was very active in his work.”

The accused denies
Duch reacted to the statement by reading the answers he gave to the co-Investigating Judges when they confronted him to this testimony: “I would like to say that this statement is inaccurate. These high officials [Ieng Sary, Son Sen, etc] were not present at my wedding.” And he listed the names of the guests at his wedding. “I do not know why this witness made this declaration. Also, I think he was not a messenger with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but more likely a S-21 staff member.”

Another witness not really favourable to Duch
Another witness, Ouk Bun Seng, who was “re-educated” at Boeung Choeung Ek before being sent to S-24 (Prey Sar), told the investigators of the office of the co-Investigating Judges that in his escape from S-24 in 1979 when the Vietnamese troops arrived, he met with Duch in the Cardamoms. There, there were six prisoners, arrested by the subordinates of Duch, who said they should be “eliminated, whether they confess or not.” The witness also saw there a prisoner be tortured with an inflamed torch put in his mouth, while Duch stood nearby. However, he described Duch as “pleasant, friendly but firm,” in contrast to Huy, Prey Sar’s leader, who was “nasty.” After this new testimony was read, Duch said he never knew the witness. He denied in particular the episode of the torture in the Cardamoms because, he justified, everything was in disarray after January 7th 1979.

A testimony favourable to the defence
The following witness, named Toy Teng, had been assigned by Him Huy to Choeung Ek to receive the prisoners, dig pits and execute prisoners. He claimed he never saw Duch there, although he admitted not knowing him, and affirmed he never saw children be killed at Choeung Ek, not even with their heads smashed against a tree. The testimony which excerpts were read in court was demanded by the co-Prosecutors, although it served the defence better. Duch made no comment and his Cambodian lawyer noted that “for now, no testimony has indicated that the accused came to Choeung Ek.” With the exception however of Him Huy, who declared, on July 16th in court, he saw Duch at the killing fields.

After the last testimony was read, the accused deemed it “a little strange” on some points and wondered if that person, someone named Him Houn, was actually a former S-21 guard, as he alleged. But previously, Duch the meticulous made sure to correct a date, that of a meeting Son Sen participated to, which he he had previously given in court, as he had made a mistake… of a few days. The attention to detail, always.


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