Wednesday, April 1, 2009

British victim at S-21

The case of 26-year-old British teacher John Dewhirst was in the news again today with a report in The Times newspaper and another by the BBC. Dewhirst (pictured) was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was captured by a Khmer Rouge naval patrol, tortured at Tuol Sleng and executed just weeks before the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979. He was the only known Briton to have been jailed in S-21 and with the trial of the prison's chief Duch underway in Phnom Penh, the stories appeared today. Also read other articles on John Dewhirst here. Dewhirst's fellow crew member Kerry Hamill also perished and filmmaker Annie Goldson is to make a documentary, Brother Number One, for New Zealand television charting the search for the truth about what happened to Hamill by his younger brother, champion rower and Olympian Rob Hamill.

Khmer Rouge Trial: the British victim John Dewhirst - by Anne Barrowclough, The Times

s hundreds of Cambodians crowded into a courtroom yesterday to see the chief torturer of the Khmer Rouge finally brought to trial, a country lawyer in Britain quietly got on with her work. Only those closest to her know how, 30 years ago, Comrade Duch destroyed Hilary Holland’s family. In 1978 Ms Holland’s brother, John Dewhirst, 26, was captured by the Khmer Rouge and tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng. He was the only Briton among 17,000 Cambodians to die at the regime’s infamous prison. Three decades on, as Cambodia watches the first trials of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous leaders, his fate continues to haunt his sister. “The horrific circumstances and the manner of how John was killed still makes it so difficult to cope with,” Ms Holland told The Times from her home in Cumbria.

The young Newcastle teacher had been sailing through the Gulf of Thailand with two friends in July 1978 when their vessel was intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat. The skipper, Stuart Glass, a Canadian, was killed instantly. Mr Dewhirst and the other crew member, Kerry Hamil, a New Zealander, were sent to Tuol Sleng, a school turned into a torture centre presided over by the brutal Kang Kek Ieu – better known as Duch. There, like thousands of others, they were tortured until they “confessed” to being CIA agents. Then they were taken to Cheong Ek, a pretty orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and bludgeoned to death with an iron bar.

Back in Britain, Ms Holland was concerned at her younger brother’s unusual silence but it was not until she switched on the news one evening that she learnt he had become a victim of a regime she had hardly heard of. Soon after, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told her that he had been captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and was almost certainly dead. The pain of that moment has never left her. “It was indescribable,” she said. “I don’t think I have got the words to explain how I felt. I used to think that if you could die from emotions like this, I would have died. I have experienced death – the death of my husband when I had two young children – but this is completely different.”

Yesterday Duch identified himself quietly before the charges against him were read out to a UNbacked war crimes tribunal: crimes against humanity, war crimes, premeditated murder and torture. He is the first of five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge to be brought to trial. The others were members of Pol Pot’s inner circle: Nuom Chea, or “Brother Number Two”, who was in charge of security; Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Nearly two million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979 as Pol Pot pursued his vision of an agrarian Utopia. Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, was the most notorious jail: of 17,000 people sent there, only 15 survived. According to the thick file of charges read to the court: “Every prisoner who arrived at S-21 was destined for execution. The policy at S-21 was that no prisoner could be released. Prisoners brought to S-21 by mistake were executed in order to ensure secrecy and security.”
On the orders of Duch, a former maths teacher, victims were plunged headfirst into tanks of water, often drowning; they were given electric shocks to their genitals and eardrums. Some were hooked up to intravenous pumps and literally bled dry.

It was a cruel fate that delivered Mr Dewhirst into Duch’s hands. A care-free, adventurous young man, he had taken a break from his teaching job in Japan to go sailing with Mr Glass and Mr Hamil on their motorised junk Foxy Lady. It drifted into Cambodian waters and, to the paranoid Khmer Rouge, their presence had no innocent explanation. Even after she heard of his incarceration in S-21, his sister hoped that his friendly nature would help him to survive. “I thought if anyone could develop a personal relationship with his jailers it would be him,” she said. “I thought he would charm his way out of there.”

In fact, nothing could have saved him – although the meticulous Duch, who catalogued details of all his prisoners, described him as a polite young man. Before he died, Mr Dewhirst was forced to write a detailed confession saying that he had been trained as a CIA spy. The confession, in Cambodian and English, entitled “Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough, England”, claims that he was recruited into the CIA by his father and from 1972-76 was taught agency techniques, including weapons-handling, at his teacher training college in Leicestershire. A mixture of the dull and the ludicrous, it claims that Loughborough was one of six CIA colleges in Britain. Others, John wrote, were in Cardiff, Aberdeen, Portsmouth, Bristol and Doncaster. His college, he said, was run by “retired Colonel Peter Johnson” while the bursar was a CIA major. Among many bizarre “admissions” was a claim that his father was a CIA agent whose cover was “headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School”. The confession is signed and dated 5/7/1978. Mr Dewhirst’s thumbprint lies alongside his signature. As with thousands of inmates at S-21, it was probably dictated to him by his interrogators on Duch’s orders.

Duch’s trial is of great significance to Cambodia, with its former leaders going unpunished for 30 years. It is expected to be a catharsis for the victims, who still do not understand why their families were taken from them. Ms Holland also wants answers. She wants the Khmer Rouge leaders to admit their guilt and explain why they destroyed so many lives. “There must be a public accountability,” she said. “I would like it to be seen that they understand what they did.” It is too painful for Ms Holland to attend Duch’s trial but she is relieved that, after all this time, the leaders will finally be brought to justice. “It’s of such historical importance,” she said. “No one is going to undo the horrors but bringing these people to account is important. I don’t care what happens to them but I would like them to tell the truth, to explain their motivation."

Duch, 66, who was arrested in 1999 after being tracked down by a journalist, is alone among the defendants in expressing remorse and has agreed to cooperate with the tribunal. At a procedural hearing last month, he made it clear through his lawyer that he would use his trial to apologise to his victims, although he does not expect “immediate” forgiveness. His French lawyer, Francois Roux, said yesterday: “After ten years of prison, at last the day is coming where he can in public respond to the questions.” But Duch can expect no forgiveness from Ms Holland. “People like Duch, who ordered the atrocities, were the worst,” she said.

How the Khmer Rouge claimed a British victim - by Jonathan Greenwood (BBC)

Hilary Holland is unimpressed with the news that the Khmer Rouge leader who ordered her brother's execution 30 years ago has admitted responsibility for his crimes. Kaing Guek Eav - also known as Comrade Duch - expressed "regretfulness and heartfelt sorrow" for his actions at a long-awaited UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia. "I'm not a vindictive person" she says, "but personally it won't make me feel any different. What happened to my brother can't be undone. There has to be accountability, there has to be truth. But sorry is not enough. There's nothing he could say that would make me feel better about what happened."

Duch stands accused of torture, crimes against humanity and premeditated murder on a massive scale. It is alleged that he oversaw the deaths of more than 10,000 people. The Khmer Rouge killed up to two million people in less than four years. Ms Holland's brother, John Dewhirst, was among the victims. In 1978, the 26-year-old teacher was captured, tortured and killed at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. He was the only Briton among 17,000 Cambodians to die there. Taking a holiday from his job as a teacher, he had been sailing through the Gulf of Thailand with two friends, when their boat strayed into Cambodian waters. When it was intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat, one of the party, Canadian Stuart Glass was killed immediately.

John and the other crew member, New Zealander Kerry Hamil were taken to the now infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21. There they were tortured until they confessed to being CIA agents, before being executed. John's sister Ms Holland, now a solicitor based in Cumbria, learned of his fate by listening to the news. Eventually the Foreign and Commonwealth office confirmed he had been captured by the Khmer Rouge, and that he was probably dead. More than 30 years on, she is still traumatised by what happened. Fighting back the tears she says: "I'm a strong person. I've had knocks over the years - I experienced the death of my husband at a young age. I imagine the effect it's had on me is similar to all those people in Cambodia - it's permanent. Where there's an ordinary death - you miss the person who was in your life, and it hurts but the pain reduces over the years. Time's a great healer. But this doesn't get any less." She recognises the impact that the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge must have had on the Cambodian national psyche: "There must be a whole country of traumatised people - because of how they were killed and tortured."

The horrors of what happened inside S-21 are almost unimaginable. Prisoners were tortured until they wrote detailed confessions - explaining how they'd been disloyal to the regime. Then they were taken to the "killing fields" at Choeung Ek, a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh. There they were executed, often bludgeoned to death with iron bars on the orders of Duch. Victims were frequently made to dig their own graves. Duch, who was meticulous in recording those who passed through S-21 described John as a polite young man - but that didn't save him.

His confession - signed and dated the 5th of July 1978 - is entitled "Details of my course at the Annexe CIA college in Loughborough England." Among the bizarre claims is that Loughborough was one of six CIA colleges in the UK. Hilary Holland says she had no idea how John was killed until recently. She decided not to attend the trial in person. "It would be too hard, and it wouldn't achieve anything," she says. But she recognises its importance: "If this trial can in any way help any of those people - then it should happen. It's of such historical importance and it's a matter of public record. The more information that can be made available, then the better historically speaking and it might stop these things happening again."

Another story ran a couple of days ago in the New Zealand press about the fate of Kerry Hamill.
NZ family seek justice at UN trial - by The Press (New Zealand)

It is 31 years since Kiwi Kerry Hamill was tortured and killed in a Cambodian school-turned-prison. On Monday, his brother, rowing great Rob Hamill, expects to see the first flickers of accountability as one of the largest criminal hearings of modern times opens. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, ran the most notorious torture centre during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. It was where Hamill was killed, along with two friends and thousands of Cambodians. Eav faces charges of crimes against humanity before the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which has New Zealand judge and former governor-general Dame Silvia Cartwright among its five members. "It's more accountability and to see that some sort of justice has been done. It's been over 30 years now and it's about time," Rob Hamill said.

Kerry Hamill, then 27, and friends were sailing from Singapore to Bangkok when their yacht strayed into Cambodian waters. Along with his mates, Canadian Stuart Glass and Briton John Dewhirst, Hamill was arrested, detained, tortured and killed at Security Prison 21 (S21), formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School. As many as 1.7 million Cambodians perished in the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, 14,000 of them "class enemies" of the Communist regime executed at the S21 torture centre and prison, along with Hamill. After his 1978 capture, Hamill was forced to write a 4000-word "confession" that claimed his father was a colonel in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who had recruited him into the agency. Under torture, he described in detail CIA plans to subvert the Khmer Rouge regime. Then he and Dewhirst were killed. Glass had been shot earlier. Women, children and babies were also killed. Few inmates at the former school survived.

From August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, classrooms were converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire. Rob Hamill said Eav, 66, a former teacher, had caused "terrible pain". He spoke of "the complete loss and grief that was felt and the impact it had on our family. I often think about how things could have been better. Not that things are terrible, but you know having Kerry in our lives would have [been better]."

He provided the court with a statement, but the expense and timing made it impossible to attend the historic trial. "I am feeling a compelling sort of need to be out there now," Hamill said. Christchurch Cambodian Association president Rasy Sao said Cambodians viewed the trials with some scepticism because of Prime Minister Hun Sen's past involvement with the Khmer Rouge. "At this moment, the government in Cambodia does some things not very right. There is quite a lot of corruption," Sao said. "If they do it [a trial] for someone, they should do it for themselves." Sao said he visited his home country twice a year and had to stay quiet while he was there. "If I say something wrong, maybe they will kill me straight away."

Cartwright said whatever political problems there might be in Cambodia, there was no problem with the judiciary. "I have no hint of any corruption of any description amongst my Cambodian judge colleagues," she said. Cartwright has been living in Phnom Penh and preparing for the trials since last July. Once the trials begin, Cartwright will be allocated areas to focus on. "I might be asked to focus on how S21 or [the school] was actually established, or I might be asked to focus on methods of torture or focus on how many people died or something like that, and it will be my job to be totally on top of the evidence. The evidence goes to hundreds of thousands of pages," she said.

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