More than four years after he last stepped foot in the courtroom, Kaing Guek Eav, the S-21 prison chief better known as Duch, returned to the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday and said that Nuon Chea’s attempts to distance himself from atrocities committed at the notorious security center were “nonsense.”
In 2010, Duch, who oversaw the torture and execution of more than 15,000 people at the prison in Phnom Penh, became the first Khmer Rouge official to be found guilty of crimes committed during the Pol Pot regime, during which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished.
Following the public outcry that came from an initial decision to hand the former prison chief a 35-year sentence, reduced to 19 years, the tribunal’s Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2012, sentencing him to life behind bars.
Duch, who last testified in Case 002/01 in 2012, returned to the courtroom on Tuesday to give evidence in the case’s current phase—in which Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea and the regime’s head of state, Khieu Samphan, are on trial for crimes including genocide.
Assistant prosecutor Dale Lysak wasted no time in grilling Duch about Nuon Chea’s knowledge of S-21 by reading a speech that Pol Pot’s deputy delivered to the court in 2012. In the speech, Nuon Chea stated that he had “never been responsible” for the security center’s operations, and accused Duch of being “untruthful” in claiming otherwise.
“I am surprised by the denial by Uncle Nuon,” Duch said on Tuesday. “Everybody had to respect the principles of the party, decided by the party secretary and the deputy secretary of the party. That is the line of organization of the party, so his denial is nonsense.”
S-21 was directly controlled by the Communist Party of Kampuchea and was referenced in Article 8 of its statute, he said, adding that the policy to “smash” enemies was agreed on during a congress prior to the communists taking control of the country.
Visibly frailer than since he was last seen in public—and with a shaved head in place of his gray hair—Duch grew short of breath at times and complained of fatigue early into his testimony.
The former prison chief was fully engaged throughout proceedings, however, giving in-depth responses to queries put to him by the prosecution. At times he was animated, smiling and gesturing to emphasize certain points.
“I would like to tell you as well that at the time I was already chief of S-21, and as long as one was arrested he or she was never released,” Duch said when discussing the fate of Lon Nol officials.
Toward the end of the day, Duch explained how the wife of Thach Chea, a Lon Nol official, was forced to undergo experimental surgery by a prison medic in training.
He then spoke of how Son Sen, the Khmer Rouge defense minister and his direct superior, chastised him and his predecessor, Ta Nat, for choosing a high-profile inmate to experiment on.
“Do I understand correctly that Son Sen was OK with doing live medical surgeries on people? He just blamed you for using a well-known person for the medical experiment? Do I understand correctly?” Mr. Lysak asked.
“We could draw that conclusion. That’s what happened in principle,” Duch replied, adding that Thach Chea’s children were also killed—a common practice at S-21.
“In the real situation after 17 April, 1975, when the parents were taken and killed, the children would be taken away and killed as well,” he said.
Duch’s testimony continues on Wednesday.