The Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison commander wept Tuesday as he visited the Choeung Ek killing fields, where some 20,000 men, women and children are thought to have been murdered, a Khmer Rouge tribunal spokesman said.
“Duch knelt down and put his arms together in front of the rain tree,” spokesman Reach Sambath said. “He cried, and then he could control himself.”
Babies were allegedly smashed to death against the trunk of a rain tree that still stands at the heart of Choeung Ek’s pitted landscape. Dried human bones and bits of clothing still work their way up through the dirt.
Duch, a Christian convert, also knelt before Choeung Ek’s large stupa of skulls, bending forward in prayer three times, Reach Sambath said. Tears trickled down Duch’s face, he added.
Kar Savuth, one of Duch’s attorneys, said Duch had cried and apologized to the remains of some 9,000 victims enshrined in the glass-walled stupa.
He added that his client never intended to kill anyone and was just following orders.
“They ordered him to do so. If he didn’t do it, they would also kill him,” Kar Savuth said, adding: “He took the opportunity to apologize.”
Duch, who has admitted to journalists that he played a role in Khmer Rouge atrocities, was arrested in 1999 and held at the military prison in Phnom Penh until July. He was then transferred to a detention center at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The visit to Choeung Ek was part of an ongoing, secret judicial investigation. Thursday judges will usher Duch back to the prison he once commanded, Tuol Sleng.
The aim of both visits is to help court officials reconstruct crimes.
Duch spent more than three hours at Choeung Ek, and was joined by the court’s co-investigating judges and co-prosecutors, his two lawyers and four witnesses who used to work at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng, Reach Sambath said.
Co-Investigating Judge You Bunleng and Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said they had not seen Duch cry.
No victims of the regime were present, You Bunleng said, adding that the court was trying to establish a clear picture of where the crimes under investigation were actually committed.
Petit said the day had been “odd.”
He said he’d never seen people brought together in this way at the scene of an alleged crime, and he hoped it would prove useful.
He said he was also looking forward to sifting through the various testimonies at court hearings this Thursday and Friday.
Reach Sambath said Duch’s visit had gone smoothly. “Witnesses explained to the judges and the accused gave his explanation. Everything was recorded,” he said.
ECCC officials have not said when—or whether—the records of the visits would be made public.
Choeung Ek, one of Phnom Penh’s most visited destinations by tourists, was in lockdown beginning at 7 am. Around 100 police and military police lined the road from Phnom Penh, armed with AK-47s and smoke grenades.
Two roadblocks were set up near the killing fields memorial site to keep journalists, tourists and an inquisitive public out as Duch’s four-car convoy sped down the newly paved road to Choeung Ek just after 8 am.
Villager Sat Suon, 73, watched the cars, with their tinted windows, fly past.
Sat Suon said his younger sister and his parents starved to death under the Khmer Rouge.
He also said that he’d never seen Duch’s face and he didn’t get a glimpse of him Tuesday, either, but even now he still has feelings of “suffering” that have lingered since the regime.
As for Duch, Sat Suon was frank: “He must be punished.”
(Additional reporting by Erika Kinetz)