samlot district, Battambang province – In the early weeks of 1996, a teacher called Hang Pin was baptized in the waters of Battambang’s sleepy Sangke River, promising to accept the gospel and recognize Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.
Fourteen years later, a verdict in the war crimes trial of Hang Pin will be pronounced today.
The quiet, fervently religious high school teacher—who was born Kaing Khieu, later became Kaing Guek Eav and is best known by his revolutionary name, Duch—stands accused of murdering a bare minimum of more than 12,380 people, but likely as many as 14,000, at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge prison where he served as chief administrator.
But the grinding wheels of justice at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh have gone largely unnoticed among those who knew him in Battambang in the mid-1990s, back when Duch was a soldier of Christ and district education worker, back when he was still called Hang Pin.
Even Pastor San Timothy, who taught Duch the precepts of Christianity at the Cambodian Christian Church from the time of his conversion to his 1999 arrest, admitted yesterday that he had not been following his former student’s trial very closely.
But Mr Timothy said that Duch’s abrupt about-face during his final pleadings in court in November—when he reversed a long-standing guilty plea and denied he was responsible for the killings at Tuol Sleng—made him doubt whether his acolyte’s expressions of faith had ever been genuine.
“Jesus loves the people who are honest with him and take responsibility for the truth,” Mr Timothy said at his Battambang City home yesterday afternoon after spending the morning in prayer.
“If Duch is not honest, he is lying to Jesus,” he said.
“Duch told everyone that he believed in Jesus, but to change like this means that he was just using Jesus’s name,” he added. “So that’s double guilt.”
News of Duch’s trial has taken even longer to filter through to remote Samlot district, where many residents are former Khmer Rouge cadres. Very few people here said they were following the trial. Even fewer still remember Hang Pin. Thai boxing draws far more viewers here than the war crimes tribunal’s broadcasts.
Duch’s sister, Hong Kim Hong, still occupies the house where Duch lived incognito before his discovery and arrest in 1999, but she no longer likes to speak of her brother to neighbors or visitors.
“I haven’t been informed of the verdict,” Ms Kim Hong said tersely on Saturday. “I have no contact with him and I have no money to go to Phnom Penh.” Of her brother’s innocence or guilt, she said only: “I have no idea. Ask his lawyers.”
Ms Kim Hong, a nurse who also runs the district health clinic next door, would stop to talk only briefly as she dashed around her house performing a series of intricate chores: tending to a simmering chicken curry one minute, adjusting the IV of a malaria patient the next.
Hanging on the clinic wall above the bed-ridden man was a display of family photos, including one of an old, grinning Duch posing next to a portrait of himself as a pompadoured teenager.
Ms Kim Hong’s neighbors, Horn Phorn, 76, and Uth Oeun, 40, said they had seen these pictures and were curious about them but never dared to raise the topic with his sister, even though the three women would occasionally watch the trial together on TV.
“We cannot express our own ideas and when the trial is over we just leave,” Ms Oeun said. “We don’t want to dig up their background.”
“It’s just uneducated people in this town and nobody really wants to talk about the trial,” added Ms Phorn. “I’m an old woman, so I just go to the pagoda and don’t know about anything else.”
Khut Lyhak, a 57-year-old RCAF soldier who once fought for the Khmer Rouge and lived across the street from Duch in Samlot town, chain-smoked in the dry space under his house on Saturday as a midday storm pounded down.
Although it took authorities and journalists years to track down Duch, Mr Lyhak said that the identity of the man known as Hang Pin was common knowledge among the former cadres who flocked to refugee camps on the Thai border, and later, among residents of the village. Although they were well aware that the highly educated teacher who lived among them was the infamous warden of Tuol Sleng, nobody took much notice.
“By 1979 he had already turned into an old man, so who would care about him?” Mr Lyhak asked.
“Some Fridays I watch TV about the Duch trial, but it just goes on and on again and again and never finishes, so I don’t know, I finally gave up,” he continued.
But when told of today’s impending verdict, Mr Lyhak and his wife, Seng Tha, 51, said they would do their best to watch, even though they felt uncertain whether Duch was innocent or guilty of the crimes he stands accused of.
“For us, we don’t know about him because we’re just in the middle,” Ms Tha said. “We don’t really know. But for the ones who suffered from him, they must really, really want him to lose.”
Ki Sievkim, 34, is Duch’s only daughter who was born to her father in 1977, when he still ran S-21. She and her husband, Than Bunchhen, 31, own a tiny shop in a village adjacent to Samlot town, selling everything from house-dried fish to shampoo. A scrupulously neat list of debtors is chalked on the wall, the only visible sign that this shy and giggly young mother is a child of the Pol Pot regime’s most meticulous prison warden.
She has lost touch with Duch—not by choice, she says, but by poverty. She has not been able to scrape together the money to visit him in Phnom Penh. Asked how much she knew about her father’s trial, she said simply, “Zero.”
But she said she was still attached to him—”he’s my only father,” she pointed out. Duch, she recalled, was a caring father, but just as strict and uncompromising as his reputation.
“I just remember that he was a strict person, strict to every job he undertook,” she said. “Like weeding the grass—he would weed and weed until the entire plot was clean.”
Ms Sievkim and her husband are too poor, and their house is too remote, to allow them to follow the trial, even on TV. She had no idea that judges are to rule on her father’s fate today, and, like the other villagers of Samlot, they say they do not understand the law well enough to feel comfortable opining on Duch’s innocence or guilt.
“I know nothing of that,” Ms Sievkim said. “I’m not a judge, so how can I know?”
But they do know what they hope will happen today.
“I never expected to get myself a Khmer Rouge daughter” as a wife, Mr Bunchhen said, laughing. “But even though I’m just the son-in-law, I want him to be free because I want him to see his grandson.”
“Every son or daughter wants their father to be free,” Ms Sievkim added.
“If it were you, you would feel the same way.”