Rebuked by the accused, Tuol Sleng’s chief interrogator appeared near the breaking point at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Wednesday and expressed remorse to the family of one of his alleged victims.
Mam Nai, alias Chan, 76, had since Monday repeatedly refused to answer questions for fear of self-incrimination, stonewalling prosecutors and civil parties alike and claiming in testimony that he had no knowledge of torture and killing and no regrets for the actions of the former regime.
However, he was commanded to speak on Wednesday by his former superior, the accused, Khmer Rouge secret police commander Kaing Guek Eav, best known as Duch, who rose to his feet in a withering show of disapproval.
“Please don’t be afraid you’ll die. Just tell the truth,” said Duch. “Since I am ready to accept or be accountable for all the crimes I have committed, I would want you to do the same.”
Duch described Mr Nai as a slow learner and a less devout communist than his deputy interrogator Pon, whom Duch said he had shown greater trust.
“I was part of the [Communist Party of Kampuchea], and you yourself have not admitted that you were part of the CPK. Here, emotionally, we have to be accountable for the crimes committed,” said Duch.
Duch said that Mr Nai owed an explanation to history and the family of Phung Ton, the former rector of the University of Phnom Penh, who was murdered at Tuol Sleng in July of 1977.
Mr Nai had earlier on Tuesday recognized his handwriting on Mr Ton’s confession but said that he could not recall whether he had interrogated Mr Ton.
Mr Ton’s daughter, a civil party, was present in the courtroom as Duch told Mr Nai to end his silence.
“Please be reminded that civil parties are here with us, and they want to know where our professor died,” said Duch. “So I think communism should not be in our spirit or blocking our views to talk the truth.”
As his client’s composure appeared to weaken, lawyer Kong Sam Onn, who was assigned this week to help Mr Nai avoid self-incrimination, asked that Mr Nai be given a moment before answering.
“I would like to express my regretfulness to the family of professor Phung Ton,” said Mr Nai. “His wife is the goddaughter of my grandfather.”
Duch’s lightning invective appeared more successful in breaking the witness than judges, prosecutors or the victims’ lawyers.
“I am now trying to relieve myself by considering the karma and the religious beliefs, and of course I have been very regretful,” said Mr Nai, adding that his wife and family had also died during the regime.
“If I am asked to bring further information, I think it is impossible, because it is more like shooting something in the dark night.”
After court was adjourned on Wednesday, civil party lawyer Silke Studzinsky, who represents Mr Ton’s daughter, said her client’s family had rejected Mr Nai’s sudden contrition.
“They do not accept this remorse that he expressed. What they want and what they need is the facts, what happened to the father,” said Ms Studzinsky.
She noted that Duch has also volunteered little information about Mr Ton, whose murder has now been discussed several times at trial.
Before Duch’s angry confrontation with Mr Nai, the witness had admitted to writing out lectures and policy documents on torture and interrogation at S-21.
But Mr Nai continued to maintain that he had never received any instructions on torture.
In a possible attempt to discourage the witnesses’ candor, defense lawyer Francois Roux told Mr Nai not to believe prosecution assurances that he would not be prosecuted for his role at S-21.
At the end of his questioning, Mr Roux delivered an acid jibe to the prosecution for having sought the testimony of the reticent Mr Nai.
“Mr Prosecutor, I would like to thank you, and if you have other witnesses like this one, please do not hesitate to call them,” said Mr Roux.
The remark drew reminders from the prosecution and the Trial Chamber that the court had summoned the witness, even though his testimony was proposed by prosecutors.
Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn expressed exasperation at the repeated discussion of self-incrimination in the courtroom.
Municipal prosecutors in Phnom Penh were unavailable for comment on Wednesday. However Judge Ke Sakhorn, the court’s deputy director, said witnesses at the tribunal could be subject to prosecution if they lie under oath.
He referred to prosecutors, questions about prosecution under Cambodia’s penal code of 1956, which was in effect when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.
The former code’s statute of limitations has lapsed but was extended by 30 years only for those tried by the tribunal.
Former S-21 chief guard Him Huy, alias You Huy, 54, entered the witness box on Wednesday, but said he too required the counsel of Mr Onn to avoid self-incrimination.
Mr Onn said Wednesday that he had agreed to represent Mr Huy, in addition to Mr Nai, though he had received no advance notice.
“Mr Huy just met me this afternoon, and I was not even prepared,” said Mr Onn.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)