In four hours of testimony yesterday, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, told the Khmer Rouge tribunal that he had reported directly to the regime’s “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea about forced confessions extracted from tortured prisoners at the notorious S-21 prison.
But the prison commander’s revelations sparked an angry riposte from Nuon Chea, who interrupted Duch at the end of the morning to accuse him of being “rotten wood” whose testimony was worthless.
The day ended with Nuon Chea, 85, walking out of the hearing because he felt ill, while his international lawyer, who has styled himself as the enfant terrible of the courtroom, once again became entangled in a spat with trial judges.
Duch, a star witness in the case, known officially as 002, was sentenced to life in prison last month for his role in heading the S-21 prison, where more than 12,000 prisoners—including children—were tortured and killed.
Duch spent much of yesterday detailing the command structure of Democratic Kampuchea’s security apparatus, discussed the regime’s policies and gave evidence on the 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh, the centerpiece of the first mini-trial in the case.
He explained that his immediate superior was Khmer Rouge Defense Minister Son Sen, who oversaw the regime’s secret police and assigned Duch to work at S-21, and to whom he filed reports on prisoners’ confessions.
“I did that until 15 April 1978, when he was relocated to Neak Leung. Then I met Brother Number Two Nuon Chea. I reported to him on a regular basis,” Duch said under questioning by prosecutors.
Adopting a professorial manner, Duch effortlessly rattled off six-digit document identification numbers, referred to witnesses in the first case, known as 001, by their numerical pseudonyms, and referred to “research” he had done on the Khmer Rouge era, all of which drew objections from defense lawyers who said Duch ought to stick to describing events he had witnessed.
Ieng Sary’s lawyer, Michael Karnavas, accused the prosecution of attempting to use Duch as an “expert” rather than a witness, saying: “The word ‘research’ indicates that the gentleman has gone and read, and is now testifying as if it is knowledge he acquired then, as opposed to knowledge he acquired hereafter.”
After the objection was sustained by judges, Duch made an obvious effort to bolster his testimony by explaining exactly when he had learned each piece of information he was providing to the court.
“My testimony is based on the truth, but my knowledge evolves,” he told the court. “If you only want me to talk about what I knew back then, I am afraid I may not have anything to tell the world about this, because I was confined to S-21 in particular.”
Still, what Duch was able to say about the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge regime prompted an interruption from Nuon Chea, who employed a religious metaphor in an apparent effort to demean the value of Duch’s testimony.
“People never use rotten wood to craft or carve a Buddha sculpture for people to pay homage to,” he told the court.
Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn admonished Nuon Chea for the outburst, telling the defendant to “exercise your utmost restraint” and stop antagonizing the witness.
In a filing last week, Nuon Chea called Duch a “hypocrite witness” who had offered the court “unreliable testimony,” and said he harbored fears that the former S-21 commandant would attempt to murder him at the detention facility where they are both imprisoned. He did not explain why he thought Duch wanted to kill him.
Yesterday’s hearing came to an abrupt end nearly an hour early after Nuon Chea declared that he was exhausted and needed to rest. Then, in a bizarre episode, Nuon Chea’s international lawyer, Michiel Pestman, wandered out of the courtroom and into a room where doctors were examining Nuon Chea, infuriating the Trial Chamber judges, who accused him of trying to interfere in the medical examination.
Still, they acceded to Nuon Chea’s request to end the trial session early.
“The chamber has taken note of this interference, but we could not do anything but to adjourn the meeting,” Judge Nonn said.