Is Duch’s trial set on the wrong track?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 28/05/2002: Vann Nath, Tuol Sleng survivor, and Suos Thy, formerly in charge of prisoner records, face-to-face during the shooting of documentary movie “S-21, the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” of Rithy Panh
©John Vink/ Magnum


By Stéphanie Gée

The hearing on July 28th was one of those days when you came to forget who the accused is, as interrogations strayed so far from the matter being debated. It also illustrated how the debates got bogged down, as more time was devoted to (re)confirm facts already recognised by Duch than to tackle the hundred of factual elements established by the prosecution but denied by the accused – what should be at the heart of this trial. The result: too often, an all-clear for the defence while the documentation work on S-21 and its director Duch was left aside.

A difficult start
The hearing of Suos Thy, who kept the prisoner records at S-21, resumed. The president started by asking that a document be shown. Nothing came. Finally, a chart appeared on the screen. Unfortunately, it was not a document that the witness used to make or use for his work. The president dived noisily into his papers, from which he extracted the reference number of a second document… which still was not recognised by Suos Thy. The third attempt was the right one, but nothing was learnt from it.

Looking at a “list of prisoners whose interrogation was reported,” the witness specified he had not established it, as the decision pertained “to the prerogatives of the interrogation unit only.” The document succeeded on the screen, without bringing anything. “In total, and from what you know, how many prisoners were executed at Choeung Ek?” “I do not know the exact number of executions […]. I was the only person to prepare the lists, so I was unable to make a summary list every month,” said the witness, for whom it would have been impossible to remember better than the records he left behind, thirty years ago. What was Suos Thy able to observe from the prisoners’ detention conditions at S-21, the president wondered, asking in his turn the most popular question in this trial. The witness was able to note they were “skeletal.” And so on.

Repeat of the previous day
Judge Cartwright returned to the description of the S-21 routine followed by Suos Thy, as he described it the previous day, in details. She then interrogated him on the fate reserved to children. The witness repeated that he could not know where they were killed, because no list was established for children. Yes, he confirmed what he told the co-Investigating Judges, that some prisoners died of hunger and others succumbed to torture. “The lists that were found at S-21 are not exhaustive because you did not include absolutely all the names of these prisoners in those lists. Is that correct?”, the New Zealand judge asked him. “Yes, indeed. The lists at S-21 do not include everyone and the total number is therefore not known precisely. The general total may not be known, but I was sent the names of the prisoners detained at the special prison by Hor [Duch’s deputy] so that I incorporate them to the list,” he answered, appearing slightly offended he may be blamed for any inaccuracy in his past bookkeeping.

“Contact had to go through Hor”
“All S-21 documents were kept at Meng’s office, where I used to work,” the witness specified in answer to a question of judge Lavergne. He also reported he had not “seen Him Huy come to the prison” late 1978, adding that back then, “there were less prisoners arriving.” The squad ranking cadre had claimed in court on July 20th that, from mid-1978, he and others had left S-21, reassigned to work in the rice fields. Duch had discredited that detail of his story.

“What relationship did you have with the accused?” Finally, a question that led back to the heart of the trial. “Regarding the accused, we used to follow the hierarchical line. I was not contacted directly. Contact had to go through Hor because we were in different units. Instructions were communicated to Hor, who would then relay them to us.” “Did you have the opportunity to see the accused inside the buildings in the S-21 compound?” “Sometimes, I would see him go to the compound. Sometimes, he would go to the workshop where the painters worked and he would go and meet Hor. I did not know he would go inside the rooms in that building. It was not my work to keep an eye on his goings and comings.” When the Vietnamese troops arrived early 1979, Suos Thy said he did not receive any instruction to destroy certain archives.

“Everything had to go through Duch”
To the Cambodian co-Prosecutor, the witness confirmed that “in principle, for prisoners to be taken or brought, Duch, as S-21 director, had to give his authorisation. Everything had to go through him. And everything depended on his authorisation.” The co-Prosecutor later showed him the biography of Professor Phung Thon, whose widow and daughter attend the hearings daily as civil parties, and whose case has been regularly raised in the debates. Suos Thy admitted he had established that document. “Do you know what happened to that prisoner?” “Regarding the prisoners, I was not in a position to know what happened to each of them, if they died of illness or if they were taken and executed.”

Flop of the prosecution
His international colleague, Anees Ahmed, took over and sought to find out if the prisoners’ corpses were photographed. He then asked the screen to show a series of pictures of dead prisoners. The witness did not know, so the co-Prosecutor addressed the accused directly for him to confirm whether the pictures were actually taken at S-21. Duch could authenticate only those featuring bodies of cadres, he explained, which were often taken three days after the bodies had been buried and then exhumed for the photo session. He said he did not recognise anyone on the pictures on the screen. The demonstration could have been interesting if the accused had not already recognised this occasional practice. But he never denied this fact… Anees Ahmed is already the fourth international co-Prosecutor to represent the prosecution in this trial.

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 28/07/2009: Photos of S-21 detainees shown on the ECCC screens in Duch’s trial
©Stéphanie Gée

“You told the investigators mandated by the co-Investigating Judges that the detainees in S-21 came from all over the country. You further said this morning they came from different places, different sectors, different divisions. Can you confirm it once again for the Chamber?” Yes, Suos Thy confirmed. And repetitive questions ensued. Last attempt: “When did Vietnamese war prisoners arrive [at S-21] and how many of them?” “As I have already said, Vietnamese war prisoners arrived irregularly. […] I am not sure of their number. All I did was to make sure I had done my work by the end of the day.” “Can you tell us if there were already some in 1976, in 1977, in 1978…?” “In 1976 or 1977, there was no Vietnamese war prisoners. They arrived only when the conflict broke out.” That was a slap for the prosecution, who must prove there was from the start an armed conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam for Duch to be also prosecuted for war crimes. However, it would not be surprising if the witness had, like those who preceded him at the stand, followed the previous hearings in the trial.

Suos Thy lies
The first interrogation by a co-lawyer for civil party group 4 was pointless, while other lawyers on the same bench demanded more speaking time. The co-lawyer for group 3 fared hardly better. Then, it was the turn of the co-lawyer for group 2, who was reminded by the president it “[was] 1.50pm” and she had 15 minutes. Since Silke Studzinsky observed, on July 22nd, that her speaking time had been cut short of three minutes, judge Nil Nonn played this little – inappropriate – game with her. The lawyer asked the witness what was the longest detention period for a prisoner he was able to observe at S-21. Suos Thy answered “two months.” A brazen lie.

“Hor was very scared of Duch”
Ty Srinna, for group 1, chose to interrogate him on the S-21 staff members originating from division 703, which were gradually eliminated and replaced by newcomers. “Did you know who ordered the arrest of the chief of division 703?” “The person with the power to do so must have been at least the same level as Duch. No one else had that power.” “What did you know of the relationships between Duch and Hor?” “I am not sure. But I know that Hor was very scared of Duch.” During an interview he gave to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) on October 20th 2004, the witness said that “Nath [S-21 director before Duch] was scared of Duch” even though he was himself the director of the division. Suos Thy simply repeated what he had said about Hor and added that, generally, “subordinates were very scared of their superiors.”

What about “S-21 C”?
The defence’s turn. Kar Savuth had the witness confirm there was not a chance that a S-21 detainee be sent to Prey Sar (S-24), in order to invalidate the testimony of a civil party (Nam Mon), who came to testify before the Chamber on July 9th and 13th. The lawyer returned to the various codenames for the different S-21 units listed by the witness on the previous day. He asked him if “S-21 C” had existed, as he had only talked about “S-21 A,” “S-21 B” and “S-21 D.” Suos Thy did not know and the question was therefore asked to the accused. Duch first explained that the superior echelon only referred to “S-21” and that he had not heard of the other names at the time. His research led him to understand recently that the staff used letters after S-21 to designate its different branches. He concluded that “S-21 C” corresponded to the plantations of vegetables and stockbreeding, inherited from division 703, located in Takmau.

“At S-21, fear was my faithful companion”
“You said you never received any direct orders from Duch. Is that correct?” “That is correct.” “Did you ever meet Duch in person?” “I think it was an occasion that presented itself rarely.” When the lawyer asked him whether the Central Committee supervised S-21, the witness answered: “On this point, we are at a level far too high in relation to the function I used to have.” “Did you like your work?” “I hated my work. But could anyone object? No. So, I had to do what I was asked to do.” “During those 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, can you tell us about the fear you felt?” “During the time I worked at S-21, fear was my faithful companion because people were arrested and killed.” “Today, do you regret participating to the elimination of innocent lives?” “Today, I feel a lot of remorse and I feel pity for those people who were arrested and killed,” Suos Thy answered.

A truthful and informative testimony, according to the accused
Duch was already standing, ready to make his observations that conclude the witness’ testimony. The accused said he recognised that Suos Thy was indeed a S-21 staff member. “I do not need any document to know it, I know it because I know him.” He added the testimony “reflected appropriately the foundations of truth.” He mentioned “several incidents” he was not aware of during the functioning of S-21 but which will be “useful to the Chamber and the Cambodian people to understand better what happened at S-21.” The accused saluted Suos Thy’s honesty, without failing to recall that he was not in direct contact with him since he was the main person in charge of S-21 “and therefore the one most responsible for the crimes” that were committed there. Duch bowed to the judges before taking his seat back.

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 28/07/2009: Suos Thy during Duch’s trial
©Stéphanie Gée

In many ways, Suos Thy brought grist to Duch’s mill, by evoking a S-21 director who was hardly visible within the prison, and a deputy, Hor, who dealt with the daily affairs in the security centre. Since April 27th, the accused had confided in court that he was too busy by the reading of confessions and had let Hor in charge of military affairs, which encompassed arrests, interrogations and the smashing of detainees. The task of supervising was Hor’s, he said on June 16th, adding on June 25th he had delegated “large powers” to his deputies.

A briefest of statements but an unclear one
A clerk then read, on a speedy pace, the statement made to the investigators of the office of the co-Investigating Judges by a witness – a 54-year-old man named My Peng Kry – on November 29th 2007. The former Khmer Rouge combatant, who joined the struggle since 1973, became three years later a driver at S-21, assigned to this post by the chief of staff. He was then assigned to Prey Sar until the fall of Phnom Penh in 1979. One wondered what his testimony brought. Kar Savuth then requested that the witness’ declarations at the reconstruction at Tuol Sleng on February 26th 2008 be read and the accused be allowed to comment afterwards. The reading of the document was soon interrupted. There was a problem. The president: “The Chamber informs […] that the document […] concerns other witness who are still due to appear. Yet, their identity cannot be disclosed until then.” The Chamber also planned for the reading of testimonies of three witnesses already heard during the investigation, which was also postponed to a later date.

The hearing will resume on Monday August 3rd.


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