There are already plenty of ghosts at Tuol Sleng, and Wednesday the prison’s former director Duch, himself almost ethereal after 20 years in hiding and nearly nine in prison, will return to his old haunt.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Director Sopheara Chey says that, to his knowledge, Duch has not returned to the prison since he fled invading Vietnamese forces in January 1979.
“I never thought Duch would come back,” Sopheara Chey, 57, said Monday, adding: “We don’t want him to be our prison director again.”
Tuesday, with court cameras rolling, judges from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia will take Duch, whose actual name is Kaing Guek Eav, to Choeung Ek, where an estimated 20,000 people were killed and dumped in mass graves. On Wednesday, the court will bring the former prison director back to Tuol Sleng, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of more than 14,000 men, women and children.
A cavalcade of defense lawyers, prosecutors, victims and witnesses will join judges as they mine for justice in the two Khmer Rouge-era sites.
The goal, according to court officials, is to clarify witness and defendant testimony, and create audio-visual and photographic records, which can be used to reconstruct the scenes of the alleged crimes. Those documents can be used at trial, but like the visits themselves, they are strictly off-limits to the public and press.
Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang, who has been a staunch victim advocate, said he worries the visits might be too much for the 65-year-old Duch.
“Is it necessary?” Youk Chhang asked, adding: “Is it fair to him being brought back there? You cannot predict his feelings. He’s a person.”
Youk Chhang pulled out copies of Ministry of Interior photos of a gruesome crime “re-enactment” from the 1980s. A bare-chested man with a large knife leaned menacingly over a woman and her obviously terrified child.
“The scene could look like this,” Youk Chhang said, pointing at the photo. “How would Duch explain the torture during the interview process? It’s too harsh.”
DC-Cam fellow Sarah Thomas maintains that despite the court’s best efforts to provide security, the site visits could jeopardize Duch’s personal safety. She also said that the visits, especially the way they have been reported in the media, undermine the presumption that Duch is innocent—a key tenet of international justice.
In a written response to Thomas, the court’s UN Public Affairs Officer, Peter Foster, emphasized that “every possible security measure has been taken for the days in question.”
He added: “We are unaware of any court official, named or unnamed, who has referred to Duch as the ‘executioner.’ No such statement or phrase was a part of the ECCC media alert, which was sent out Friday. Nor was any reference made to a re-enactment of ‘crimes.’”
ECCC officials Monday re-emphasized that judges will not be re-enacting any gruesome, true-crime scenarios.
“They’re not going to be strapping people on torture things and pretending to hit them,” Foster said. In a Monday statement, judges also reiterated that such in situ investigations are a normal part of the investigative process.
Ros Sophearavy, Choeung Ek’s deputy director, said she would not be around for Duch’s Tuesday visit; she plans to attend a conference at the Cambodiana Hotel instead.
“It is the responsibility of the court to manage Choeung Ek tomorrow,” she said Monday.
Kar Savuth, Duch’s Cambodian attorney, declined comment.
Painter Vann Nath, one of a handful who survived S-21, as Tuol Sleng was called under the Khmer Rouge, said he will not go to Choeung Ek, but would join Duch at Tuol Sleng on Wednesday. He said he would go alone, without his family. He declined to comment further.
Sopheara Chey said he would also be there Wednesday for Duch’s visit. “It’s simple for me to see him,” he said. Time has lessened his anger, he said.
“The Khmer Rouge trial this time is following the law. Just let the law try him,” he said, adding: “They are lucky, those Khmer Rouge commanders who have a court to try them. My relatives were killed without any sentence, without a court, without lawyers, without defense.”
Over the last three decades, the anguish of Tuol Sleng’s ghosts has lessened—there is no screaming, no crying in the night, Sopheara Chey said.
But even today workers on night guard duty huddle together to sleep far from the cellblocks and torture chambers. They string their mosquito nets up front near the reception area, a small band of men knotted together against a darkness so vast that even after 30 years it seems impenetrable.
“They are afraid,” Sopheara Chey said, chuckling.
Tuol Sleng has changed a lot since Sopheara Chey arrived. For one thing, it doesn’t stink any more. What blood there was has dried.
Sopheara Chey said he saw a ghost back in 1983, while resting one evening under a coconut tree behind Building D, where newly arrived prisoners had their photographs taken.
He saw the grey shadow of a woman, naked but for a pair of red underpants, grow and grow before his astonished eyes until it towered 15 meters over him.
“I stood still. I just felt shock, but I was not afraid. Maybe my brain was not working,” he said.
She had no eyes and no lips, he said, and when she reached her arms out towards him, he grabbed his AK-47, then fell backwards, exhausted.
The next day, he and his co-workers discovered a shallow grave at the very spot where he’d seen the ghost. “There was a whole human skeleton,” he said, adding: “I remember the red underwear. It still had its red color.”
They reburied the body.
Today, the grave is unmarked—a mess of burned trash, cigarette butts and slime from a makeshift shower nearby. He does not know who the woman was, and he believes there are many such sorrowful graves on the grounds.
“The victims still want to live,” he said, adding: “Our suffering is still inside our hearts.”