S-21 Interrogator Tells of Torture of Prisoners

There were clear rules governing the behavior of guards at Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison, as well as how and when prisoners could be tortured, former interrogator Lach Mean told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday.

Testifying at the court for a second day, Mr. Mean said that while torture was used in all but one interrogation that he could remember, the use of such techniques required permission from a squad leader.

“After a decision was made to torture that particular prisoner, for example, it meant that I was allowed to torture that prisoner during that interrogation,” he said.

Inmates were either beaten with tree branches or electrocuted via wires attached to their ears, Mr. Mean said, adding that the strength of the charge was decided by an interrogator operating a dynamo.

However, when shown two paintings by former S-21 detainee Van Nath—whose murals adorn the walls of what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum—depicting prisoners hanging upside down from a pole and being dunked into a tub of water, Mr. Mean insisted that such techniques were not employed at the security center.

“I must respond that I never saw such torture and never used such forms of torture at all,” he said.

While the shortest interrogation he conducted lasted one week, Mr. Mean said, most lasted about 10 days, with prisoners facing three daily interrogation sessions, lasting a total of 12 hours.

“When the prisoner could no longer give any other answer, that was the conclusion of the interrogation,” he said.

Mr. Mean also described the highly structured nature of work assignments at S-21, explaining that each guard had been assigned specific areas to patrol. He said interrogations had taken place away from other guards and prisoners, in buildings 50 meters outside the main gates of the converted high school.

“They never allowed guards or staff to see the interrogation in the compound as the interrogation was confidential. So guards or any staff would not be allowed to see or hear the interrogation as it was unfolding,” he said.

Guards were also answerable to a set of moral codes, including instructions not to commit rape, Mr. Mean said.

“We at S-21 were strictly prohibited from committing any moral offence, or we would be treated as an enemy,” he said. “That was the clear instruction from the upper-level cadre at S-21.”

While special precautions were taken during the interrogation of female prisoners, Mr. Mean said he remembered two cases of rape in his time at S-21.

In the first case, he said, a messenger who raped a prisoner after her interrogation later tried to commit suicide but failed to do so and disappeared after his arrest. In the second, a medic who raped a patient was transferred to the nearby Prey Sar detention center to farm rice for several months.

He also recalled a female prisoner who had committed suicide.

“She [dis]embowled herself, that is, she cut open her abdomen with a razor,” he said. “She had been sent to the center for detention after she had an affair with a man and gotten pregnant.”

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