Anyone who has read my blog postings on S-21 and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will know that I follow the British press reports on the single Briton who was killed at Tuol Sleng,
. This article appeared in the Telegraph online website a couple of days ago, before the verdict on Duch was announced yesterday. You can read more about John Dewhirst
When a slightly built, bespectacled former revolutionary is sentenced on Monday for ordering the deaths of more than 14,000 people, Cambodian will at last see justice being done for one of the 20th century's greatest crimes. Thousands of miles away on the moors of rural Cumbria, so will a solicitor whose brother fell victim to Pol Pot's murderous regime in 1978 when an adventure went horribly wrong.
John Dewhirst, a 26-year-old teacher from Cumbria, was enjoying one last trip before returning home, sailing through the Gulf of Thailand in a motorised junk called Foxy Lady. All went well until he and his friends came too close to the coast of Cambodia, then a closed land whose rulers had instituted a chilling reign of terror. They were seized by Khmer Rouge coastguards and taken from their boat to a torture centre in the capital Phnom Penh. There Mr Dewhirst was brutally interrogated and forced to make the ludicrous confession that he was a CIA spy, before being slaughtered in what became known as the killing fields - the only Briton among the hundreds of thousands to die there. "It's hard to believe Duch's confession and apology," Mr Dewhirst's sister, Hilary Holland, told The Sunday Telegraph, speaking of the man who condemned her brother to death 32 years ago. "There has has been some talk about releasing Duch because he has been in prison for so long. To me that would be wrong."
Comrade Duch, the former head of the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre and the first Khmer Rouge official to go on trial, has told the court that before ordering John Dewhirst's death he chatted to the young Englishman and found him to be a polite young man. Now it is Duch's turn to await sentence. The one he will be given tomorrow by the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh will be far more merciful than the savage punishments he once inflicted during the Khmer Rouge's rule in the 1970s. On trial, he has attempted everything he can to be released; apologising for his crimes, offering to meet the surviving captives of Tuol Sleng, and begging the judges for clemency. He became a born-again Christian in an attempt to find forgiveness.
Mrs Holland is one of those who cannot forgive him. A mother of four aged 55, she has never been able to steel herself sufficiently to visit Cambodia. She considered attending the trial to describe to the judges the pain she has suffered in the years since her brother's murder; but in the end she could not face it. Instead she set out her feelings in a letter which was read out. She spoke to The Sunday Telegraph in her home at the foot of the Pennines, with a view from her sitting room window of the Cumbrian mountains where her brother had once loved to walk. From her home Mrs Holland has been attentively following the tortuous progress of the court proceedings, watching video recordings of the testimony sent by friends. The trial is the first attempt at bringing a Khmer Rouge killer to justice. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered or starved to death - almost a third of the population.
"I've seen video where things are put to him," Mrs Holland said. "There is no reaction. The man seems to be so controlled, without emotion. I haven't seen any evidence of him showing any remorse at all. He doesn't look as if he is sorry. Maybe he is. For me it makes no difference whether he is sorry or not, because he can't undo what he did. Duch said a lot about having no choice about what he did. He claimed that if he hadn't followed orders, he or his family would have been killed. Well he didn't seem to show any remorse in 1979 when the Vietnamese came and liberated the country. I feel strongly that it is not within my remit to forgive inhuman acts. How could you forgive?"
After the downfall of the regime in 1979, Duch vanished. It was only in the 1990s that he was discovered, living in a refugee camp, by an Irish photographer called Nic Dunlop who recognised his face from pictures of the former commander. Comrade Duch, who is now 67, had been one of the most notorious cogs in the Khmer Rouge's killing machine. He was a maths teacher who had joined the communist movement, rising quickly through its ranks to head the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre, set up in a former school in the capital. The Khmer Rouge had come to power under their leader Pol Pot after a vicious civil war, and set out to create a Maoist paradise cleansed of class enemies. The method was mass murder, orchestrated by men like Duch, whose real name was Kaing Guek Eav. Suspects were interrogated and tortured before being led to the killing fields, where they were usually despatched with a blow to the head from a hoe.
The outside world knew little of these horrors in 1978, when Mr Dewhirst was unlucky enough to fall into Duch's hands. Perhaps that was why he and his travelling companions strayed so close to its coast. He had spent 18 months in the Far East, mainly in Japan, and planned to settle down in England after the voyage. The Canadian skipper, Stuart Glass, died when coastguards opened fire on their boat. Mr Dewhirst and a New Zealander, Kerry Hamill, were captured and taken to Tuol Sleng, where they were held for a few weeks and then executed. Before that the young Cumbrian had to write out a lengthy "confession" to being a CIA spy, a strange mix of fantasy- concocted to please his captors - and the mundane truth about his life in the north of England. "My father was a CIA agent whose cover was headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School," was one of its more ludicrous claims. The carefully typed document, written in flawless English, describes how Mr Dewhirst was recruited by the CIA at the age of 12, then learnt to spy at the college in the Midlands where he completed teacher training. It was titled "Details of my course work at the Annex College in Loughborough, England".
Tuol Sleng is now a museum which records the savage treatment prisoners endured to make them "confess" to crimes; manacled and starved, they were beaten, half-drowned, subjected to electric shocks, and had their toenails pulled out. Eventually all would admit to being CIA agents or Vietnamese spies, at which point they would be taken to the killing fields and murdered. Three decades later, millions of Cambodians are expected to watch the live televised proceedings as the verdict is read out. Duch will almost certainly be sentenced to life in prison. The case has been followed closely by a nation which has never before examined its terrible past; thousands of ordinary Cambodians have sat in on the year-long hearing, hoping for a clue to help them understand why the horror happened.
Yet many fear that instead of the tribunal delivering justice, it will make Duch a scapegoat; more senior regime members, Pol Pot's henchmen and women who are due to start going on trial next year, are now so old and infirm that they could well die before they give evidence. Duch, as the only confessed former senior Khmer Rouge official, may well be the chief prosecution witness in those trials. And then there are the senior members of Cambodia's new and nominally democratic government who once belonged to the Khmer Rouge. They include the current prime minister, Hun Sen, who left the party before the mass killing began. To the fury of many Cambodians, the tribunal will not scrutinise their pasts.
It will not examine the role of America in Cambodia's tragedy, although many blame the United States for spreading fighting into what had been a peaceful nation when it started bombing North Vietnamese supply lines in 1969, and thus starting the war which ultimately led to the Khmer Rouge takeover. Nor will the tribunal examine the support that Britain and other nations allegedly gave Khmer Rouge guerrillas after their downfall in 1979 - when Cambodia was still a Cold War battlefield - in order to fight the Vietnamese.
The Khmer Rouge still have their supporters in Cambodia - those who see them as defenders of the nation against first the Americans, then the Vietnamese. Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Khmer Rouge torturers and killers still live openly in Cambodian villages. They will never be put on trial for fear of restarting civil war. And the tribunal has cost donor nations $100 million, a huge sum in a country which is still blighted by desperate poverty. Mrs Holland supports holding the tribunal, for all its flaws. "I hope some light is being shed on how the mass murder happened, how the rest of the world ignored it and allowed it to happen. It was so similar to what happened under the Nazis," she said. "Young people in Cambodia don't seem to know about their own history. I think more than anything that is what I wanted to come out of the trial - better knowledge and understanding. If the world knows what happened, perhaps it is less likely to happen again."
For decades until the trial began last year, Mrs Holland sought to bury the pain of her brother's death. He was 18 months older than her and they were very close. Yet she has barely mentioned him to her own children. When the trial began, she feared the prospect of learning more from the evidence about what happened in her brother's last days. "I prefer not to know exactly what happened," she said. "Knowing the details would be terrible. The best way for him to die would have been a knock on the head before they pushed him into a pit. That would have been after weeks of torture. He might have died in a much worse way." It was because her brother died in a faraway country at the hands such a cruel regime, so different from anything in her own experience, that she has found it difficult to accept what happened and grieve properly, she believes. "I am sure the problem is the extraordinary circumstances in which John died. The terror he must have felt, weeks of torture, the physical pain, loneliness. It is imagining how he must have felt during that time that is so difficult, not just the fact that he died. I try not to think about it. But it never goes away."