For the second day in a row on Tuesday, civil parties with dubious links to S-21 were presented as survivors of the notorious prison at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
In dramatic afternoon testimony, witness Phork Khan claimed to have escaped the killing fields at Choeung Ek on the eve of the Vietnamese incursion into Phnom Penh, but his tale contradicted an earlier statement he made to investigators.
He said that he was taken to Choeung Ek on Jan 6, 1979. “I was put at the edge of the pit, and I knew that it would be the last day.”
He claimed that the blow that was meant to kill him merely knocked him into the pit, where he hid under corpses before making a miraculous journey back to Phnom Penh, at one point floating on a piece of timber along the Tonle Sap river for more than two days.
However, according to the statement provided in his civil party application, Mr Khan has previously said that he was among the remaining prisoners at S-21 on Jan 7, 1979, and that Duch personally lined up the detainees to be killed.
In that second version of events, Mr Khan escaped execution by falling into a pond and hiding there until the coast was clear to escape.
When asked which story was true, he said, “What I described in this chamber was the true account of the night I was taken to be killed,” adding that he was not aware of the content of his written statement.
On Tuesday morning, Lay Chan, 55, described three months of detention at an unknown prison in the Phnom Penh area in 1976. No documents were presented to connect Mr Chan with S-21, which is known for meticulous recordkeeping.
When asked how he came to believe he was held at S-21, Mr Chan said that he had overheard two guards speaking. “I heard them talking amongst themselves and I heard the words Tuol Sleng school.”
As defense lawyer Kar Savuth later pointed out, the former school that came to house the detention center was never known as Tuol Sleng.
During a detailed and emotional testimony, Mr Chan said that he was arrested, detained, interrogated and beaten on suspicion of stealing rice, before being unexpectedly released.
Like witness Ly Hor, who was questioned Monday, several details about S-21 given by Mr Chan did not match up with accounts given by other witnesses.
He was not aware of being photographed at any point, and unlike other survivors, he was not asked to give his biography at any point.
Mr Chan’s description of the cell in which he was held also did not align with any known area of the former school. He said that the ceiling was very low: “When I stood up, of course I could not stand to the full length of my body.”
However, Mr Savuth pointed out that the ceilings throughout S-21 are generally quite high. “Even if you hop or jump, your head would never touch the ceiling.”
Silke Studzinsky, a civil party lawyer who does not represent any of the men who testified this week, said Tuesday by telephone that it was understandable that this week’s witnesses have been confused about details.
“I think that they are very traumatized and of course I think that this has an effect on memory,” she said.
Andrew Ianuzzi, a legal consultant for the defense team of Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, who is not a defendant in the S-21 case, said by telephone Tuesday that the apparently problematic testimonies of civil party witnesses this week raise concerns about the process for approving civil party applications.
“By the time they get to court, they’re supposed to be properly vetted,” he said. “I think this is one of the big problems with having to process so many applications in a short amount of time.”
He added that he was concerned about the handling of civil party applications for Case Two, in which Nuon Chea is a defendant.
When asked if the civil party application process would be reviewed, Helen Jarvis, head of the court’s victim services unit, said that she could not comment.
“I think it’s too early to say. I think we need to review this and discuss it with the civil party lawyers.”