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Duch and the Phung Ton family: an impossible meeting

Written By vibykhmer on Saturday, August 22, 2009 | 12:13 AM

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 19/08/2009: Portrait of Phung Hung Ton, husband of civil party Im Thun Sunthy, taken at S-21 and shown on an ECCC screen
©John Vink/ Magnum


By Stéphanie Gée

Without exception, civil parties, who started testifying at the stand since Monday, have all prepared questions to the accused. With the same objective: to find out precisely what happened to their relatives disappeared at S-21, to end with nightmarish speculations, and to understand how their beloved ended up crushed by that killing machine. But the answers they were given by Duch were evasive or even off-topic. Wednesday August 19th, the court heard the testimonies of the wife and daughter of Professor Phung Ton, who died at S-21 and whose shadow has hung over the trial since its start. This particular case seemed to embarrass the accused, who showed great consideration for the intellectual, former university dean and professor. An Achilles’ heel in Duch that revealed cracks in his armour. However, the confrontation hoped for between the accused and the two women, who have assiduously attended the trial, day after day, did not happen.

The courage to speak, a legacy of the father
The mother was the first to share her testimony. Im Sunthy, 70 years old and retired from the Ministry of Public Transports, was the wife of Professor Phung Ton. When she arrived, Duch stood up to welcome her. It was the first time he showed such sign of respect for a witness. The civil party’s lawyer, Silke Studzinsky, launched into a protracted listing of documents and reference numbers proving the imprisonment of Phung Ton at S-21, already revealing the contents of her client’s testimony and thereby severely denting the magic of that moment.

Mrs Im Sunthy had psychological support by her side. Her health was fragile and the evocation of her husband during the trial had already caused her to faint. Her voice trembled but she held up. For one hour. Like Mrs Lefeuvre, who appeared Monday, her testimony took the shape of an impassioned declaration of love to a husband who was “understanding and loving” and offered her twenty years of life together that were never clouded by any argument. She shared everything, including the distressing Khmer Rouge period.

“I don’t know how to describe to the Chamber that immense sadness caused by the loss of a husband I loved,” said Mrs Im Sunthy. “It has been more than thirty years now, but time only deepens my grief. I have never been happy since. I have lived in terror and trauma. Each passing minute, I think of him. […] I have sometimes thought about suicide, because I wanted to get it over with and end this sorrow. It is impossible for me not to think about the torture endured by my husband during his captivity under the Khmer Rouge. […] Today, I see that my children are brave, they dare to speak, they were raised like that by their father. Some people see it as aggressiveness, but that’s not it. It’s courage and it’s a legacy of their father. As for me, I can’t help crying but I hide from my children to do so…” Today, she is “surviving” thanks to medication, she confided.

Testifying to receive justice, not vengeance
To conclude, she explained her action, keen to dismiss any misunderstanding about her intentions. “Here, I wish to pay tribute to the souls of my disappeared father and husband, as well as to all the other relatives who also died. Some might think I am here to seek vengeance. That is not true. I am here to ask justice for my husband, so the truth is revealed, so we are told why all these people were killed and why all that barbarism was inflicted upon the victims. Was it because of lust for power, personal greed or other reasons? I believe a professor must act ethically and participate to the country’s reconstruction, not aspire to personal power.”

A man who came back to Cambodia to meet his death
Her daughter, Mrs Phung-Guth Sunthary, 53 years old, took over. For months, she has prepared that moment. She also came to honour the memory of a beloved father and “give a face to prisoner no. 17,” through words, through old family pictures that were preciously kept and which she showed to the court. She listed endless qualities – “humble,” “wise,” “attentive,” “good,” “just,” etc – though it seemed there were not enough of them to convey properly the image of the one who remained a “model” for her. Pastel-tinted childhood memories associated with the figure of her generous father crowded her memory.

She explained her father could have escaped the Khmer Rouge. He was on a mission to Europe when Pol Pot took power. Nothing obliged him to return to a Cambodia that was taking a direction he saw with suspicion, except his family whom he could not leave on their own, left to themselves, he confided in letters to friends before his departure.

“Unimaginable that intellectuals are responsible for the death of my father”
In 1975, the family lost all contact with Phung Ton and did not know what happened to him during the whole regime. “One day, late October or early November 1979, by the end of the rainy season, Mum and I went to visit a cousin. On our way back, Mum saw a farmer selling palm sugar. She gave her a little bit of rice for sugar. The woman wrapped the palm sugar in a sheet of paper. As we hadn’t seen any newspaper since 1975, we unfolded the sheet and saw the picture of my father among other photos of victims of Tuol Sleng. First, I refused to believe it was my father, though his name was written under the picture. I thought it was a mistake. But Mum said it was him. We were both very pale, unable to say one word. We had no idea about the existence of the Tuol Sleng prison, as we knew nothing of the scope of the massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. On that picture, my father was unrecognisable, thinner, with hollow eyes and wearing a sign bearing the number 17 around his neck. But because he knew most Khmer Rouge leaders, we could not understand how that could have happened. These people were either old students (including Mam Nay and Kang Guek Eav [Duch]) or fellow professors, like Son Sen or Khieu Samphan. As for Ieng Sary and his wife, they knew us very well and used to live a few hundred meters away from our house. It was unimaginable for us that these intellectuals could have been responsible for the death of my father.”

“Until now, the accused has said nothing to solve this mystery”
The mystery surrounding the last months of her father’s life was unbearable for her. “The loss of my father is a suffering that nothing can erase, an incurable wound.”

No full confession of her father was found. Yet, he had been detained almost seven months at S-21. “According to the interrogators’ testimony, prisoners usually survived only about two months and were killed after writing their confession.” However, a medical report on Phung Ton was recovered. It mentioned diarrhoeas, respiratory problems and thinness. The document must have been presented to the accused, Sunthary hypothesised, as her father was one of the important prisoners at S-21. “The accused controlled everything that happened at S-21. Meticulous and conscientious as he was, what did he decide and who did he report to about my father’s state? Kang Guek Eav is familiar with mathematical logic, so he will understand as each and everyone of us that my father, who was imprisoned at S-21 on December 12th 1976 and last seen alive on July 6th 1977, did not stay two months like most prisoners or twenty months, like the accused declared to confuse the facts and clear his responsibility. The accused has said nothing until now to solve this mystery.”

That was precisely what she expected from the trial. “Since the trial opened on March 30th 2009, I have attended every day of hearings. I have seen and heard experts and witnesses. I have heard the answers of the accused, his contradictions, his lies. I have seen his signs of emotion, real or faked. To this day, I have obtained no clear answer to the questions relating to my father’s death. Mam Nay recognised he was the one who wrote the interrogation of prisoner Phung Ton and Suos Thy confirmed he had registered Phung Ton’s name. But no S-21 staff member gave me any detail on the sufferings my father endured and the conditions in which he died. Yet, they know about this, especially Mam Nay. Prak Khan, Him Huy, Nhiep Ho confirmed to me that only the accused knew everything about my father’s case and could shed more light on the circumstances of his death since he was the director of S-21.” Sunthary was convinced that Duch knew, but wanted to hide it.

“After lying several times, the accused finally confessed that my father was at S-21,” she said. “He even theatrically ordered Mam Nay to tell the truth on the place where my father died, without ever giving himself any detail or recognising his responsibility for the killing of my father.”

If the accused does not speak, the family will close the gates of forgiveness forever
Sunthary warned Duch: she would not be satisfied with “general answers about Democratic Kampuchea” or “a shift of responsibility on the leaders who have already died.” “The accused presents himself as a repented man and claims he cooperates with justice and cares about the victims. As for me, I have followed this trial since the start and I am not at all convinced that the accused is making sincere efforts to help discover the truth. Quite on the contrary, he has done everything to prevent the truth from coming out. He is seeking to not answer for the crimes he committed. The accused knows very well the answers to my questions. If he claims not to know anything, then he is not the great intelligence service chief he is described to be, the meticulous director of S-21, and he is only a puppet and a coward. If he is in denial despite everything, the accused must then renounce his remorse. I am not here to cry for vengeance but to find out the truth. If the accused refuses to answer my questions, I close the gates of forgiveness forever. I wish the accused to live a long time, in good health, so that, placed before his soul, he ends up becoming human again, in the noble sense of it. I wish he realises that the crimes he committed against my father, against all the victims, against mankind, are also crimes against his own children and grandchildren.”

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 19/08/2009: Phung-Guth Sunthary, 53-year-old civil party, during her testimony on Day 61 in Duch’s trial
©John Vink/ Magnum

Then, she addressed the nation: “The tragedy and misery experienced during Democratic Kampuchea have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of karma taught by Buddhism. I am Buddhist like my fellow citizens, but this blood-thirsty regime was led by a clan that used an insane and satanic ideology. The use of Buddhist principles and beliefs was only a façade to minimise the fault of the leaders of that regime. I would also like to tell the young people in my country that sometimes, even in the depths of darkness, some men can cast a light by their courage, their convictions, their sense of honour. My father, Phung Ton, was one of these men. The Khmer Rouge killed him but they failed to crush his soul and wisdom.”

Duch’s answers: a disappointment
Duch brought nothing new in his answers to her precise questions. He said he did not know the professor had been sent to S-21. Evidence of it was that no document regarding Mr Phung Ton bore any handwritten notes by him, he added. Otherwise, he would have intervened “to make sure he lived in more decent conditions,” as he did for another detainee he respected as highly. However, he thought the former dean was not tortured during the interrogations and referred to Mam Nay, the one who interrogated him, “the only one who can enlighten us on what his fate was.” Finally, he argued that he was only the deputy director of S-21 back then. Yet, the analysis of existing documents established that the professor was imprisoned on December 12th 1976, at a time when the accused had already succeeded Nath at the head of S-21. Called to explain himself on this inconsistency, Duch alleged he made a mistake in the dates… and maintained he did not know.

In his conclusions, the accused said he measured the two women’s disappointment about not obtaining the answers they expected. “I can tell you that if I can be of any assistance to help establish the facts, I will do my best to do so. I will seek any supplementary information available concerning your husband and your father.” Words that left the two women in stark disappointment.

May my brother’s soul know that I joined as civil party
Next was Mr Sa Vandy. He was ready, with the text of his statement in his hands and glasses on his nose. He recently found out that one of his brothers, Pon, was detained and executed at S-21, in a magazine, “Searching for the truth,” published by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), while another brother remained “disappeared” to this day. Since, Sa Vandy imagined the suffering that must have been inflicted upon at least one of his brothers and heard them in his sleep calling for help. He woke up with a feeling of powerlessness. Later, he read in another magazine an article discussing survivors’ trauma and inviting them to join as civil parties with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Sa Vandy did so.

The moving 63-year-old retired teacher concluded his testimony by invoking aloud the spirit of the beloved brother. “Brother Pon, I truly believe you are here and you are listening the debates before this Chamber. This afternoon, I pray for you to be here, for you to participate to the trial so that you can hear and see I tried to seek justice for the criminal acts you suffered. May your soul rest in peace.”

Sa Vandy also stressed the limits of the apologies of the accused. “Each time I attend the trial, the accused always recognises his guilt before the public. He joins his hands before the television cameras and that is supposed to allay our suffering. Yet, the crime cannot be forgiven. The tribunal must judge his acts in accordance with the laws applied by the Chamber.”

Duch never claimed to be a patriot
Finally, he had this question for Duch: “The accused said he was a patriot. How can he claim to be a patriot if all he did was to kill Cambodians?” The president invited the accused to answer, while reminding him of his right to remain silent. The remark was unnecessary. Duch hardly satisfied the victims’ quest. But before them, he took great care not to keep silent. “I would like to repeat that I never claimed to be a patriot,” he answered.


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