Surviving records give no age for Horn Ngov, a “boy” among 49 prisoners released from S-21 on Dec 20, 1975.
Horn Ngov’s group was followed by 28 inmates released on various dates up to Feb 15, 1976. And a year and a half later, on or about Nov 26, 1977, 100 soldiers, including a single woman, all between the ages of 17 and 38, walked out of the darkest place in Democratic Kampuchea, according to records on file at the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
To many, this may come as a surprise.
S-21, the Khmer Rouge police special branch office in Phnom Penh that came to be called Tuol Sleng, has always been known as a place that no one left alive, where thousands of prisoners were sacrificed to a foregone conclusion of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Out of the 177 prisoners DC-Cam now believes were released from S-21, researchers have so far located one, a Kandal province father of six, DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said this week.
A second person, whose detention has not yet been confirmed, was being interviewed Wednesday by DC-Cam.
In their Aug 8 indictment of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, chairman of S-21 for most of its existence, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s co-investigating judges supported the view that no one was ever released.
“Although one witness claimed he was able to leave S-21, the vast majority of evidence demonstrates that the policy at S-21 was that no prisoner could be released,” judges You Bunleng and Marcel Lemonde found.
“This is confirmed by testimony that prisoners brought to S-21 by mistake were executed in order to ensure secrecy and security. Duch also claimed he tried to release prisoners on several occasions but was unsuccessful,” they said.
In his landmark 1999 study of the Tuol Sleng archives, “Voices from S-21,” historian David Chandler also wrote that “no one was ever released.”
In an S-21 confession cited by Chandler, a prisoner addressed Duch directly: “I understand that as for entering S-21, there is only one entry. As for leaving, that never happens.”
However, Youk Chhang said in interviews this week that records of releases at S-21 have long been known to exist.
“These are documents sitting there for the past 30 years,” Youk Chhang revealed Tuesday.
“We’ve made it available all the time but somehow it didn’t get the interest,” he said.
For Tuol Sleng interrogators, the truth was almost always irrelevant. Torture was employed until a prisoner’s confession fit the bill and execution soon followed.
According to Youk Chhang, however, there were at least in some cases deliberations among S-21 staff as to whether a detainee did in fact deserve to be released.
In a Jan 1, 1976 request for the release of a 23-year-old soldier, an S-21 worker wrote: “This name has defected from his unit twice. Once he did by himself and the other time by the activities of [person named “Sear”]. This name has just received provocation.”
The author concluded, “please, Angkar, release this name.” It was marked “agreed,” the same day, according to Youk Chhang.
On Feb 15 of that year, a similar document recommended the continued detention of a 21-year-old soldier: “This man has a tricky character and refuses to be reeducated and he has bad activities. Please, Angkar, put this man in jail for now.”
On March 8, the same month Duch took control of S-21, the document was nevertheless marked, “release.”
After it started operations in October 1975, S-21 shifted back and forth between two locations at the corner of Streets 163 and 360 and at the former police headquarters on Street 51 near Phsar Thmei.
In April of 1976, the prison settled at its final location, the former Lycee Ponhea Yat on Street 113 in Chamkar Mon district’s Boeng Keng Kang III commune.
S-21 branches were located at Choeung Ek, where most executions were carried out, and S-24, or Prey Sar prison, where lower value detainees were kept.
The records of the releases from S-21—including two lists entitled “Brief Biographies of the Released Prisoners” and “Names of the Prisoners Released”—were found among the records at Tuol Sleng, Youk Chhang said. These lists, he believes, refer to prisoners held at S-21 and nowhere else. None of the Tuol Sleng documents examined have so far concerned detainees at other locations, Youk Chhang said.
A witness cited by Judges Lemonde and You Bunleng said that “no one could be removed from S-21 without authorization from Duch.”
However, Youk Chhang said DC-Cam had not yet finally determined Duch’s level of involvement in decisions to release persons.
DC-Cam’s research into the released detainees, which was first reported on Friday by Voice of America radio, began in 2003, he said.
Khmer Rouge documents record the reasons for the detainee’s arrest but do not state the final reason given for a detainee’s release, he said.
Records indicate a 23-year-old “spy” was released on Dec 20, 1975.
“Usually they killed spies but this spy was released. We don’t know why,” Youk Chhang said.
As hostilities with Vietnam increased in 1977, the Khmer Rouge may have begun to focus more on external enemies than on eliminating their own cadres, which weakened the regime, he said.
Releases may also have been to please the whims of those in charge, he added.
“I can keep you. I can kill you. They became very powerful.”
In an e-mail on Wednesday, Chandler said he had been unaware of any recorded releases from S-21.
“I welcome new documentary evidence that will deepen our understanding of what went on at S-21,” he wrote, adding that the image of pure and uniform evil under Democratic Kampuchea can sometimes be qualified.
“I am never surprised—by anything that happened in DK. The occasional kind hearted [party] cadre, the survival of some Buddhist monks in robes, the miraculous escapes […] suggests that sometimes there was a certain give-and-take, unacknowledged of course, in the way things ran,” he wrote.
The number of known survivors at S-21 has long stood at seven men, believed to be among the 14 prisoners employed at the prison, Chandler has written.
Youk Chhang said the 177 released prisoners should not be considered survivors as they had been spared by their captors.
The total number of S-21’s victims has also varied. Prisoner lists examined by the Khmer Rouge tribunal say at least 12,380 people were detained and killed. Lists examined by Chandler, came to 13,206 people, however he estimated the total S-21 population to have been about 14,000, a figure long retained by DC-Cam.
“It has never been a straight record,” Youk Chhang admits.
Following a decision on a prosecution appeal, Duch’s trial is expected to begin later this year. Victims can apply to become civil parties up until the start of trial.
Youk Chhang said DC-Cam’s goal in its research of those released from S-21 is not to assist those who were freed in participating in the tiral.
“I think the indictment of Duch put more pressure to speed up and to bring out a better picture of what Tuol Sleng was about,” he said.
“We hope it will be helpful to the ECCC if they need additional information.”
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