Irish photographer recalls the day he found Khmer Rouge torturer
In March 1999 an old man wandered up to an Irish photographer on his day off in a village in Cambodia. It was Duch, the torture chief of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime who many assumed was long dead. On Monday the former prison chief, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, will hear the verdict in his trial at a UN-backed court in Phnom Penh on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and premeditated murder. The story behind the remarkable encounter began in 1989 when Nic Dunlop left Ireland aged 19 for Cambodia, where Khmer Rouge rebels were still waging an insurgency a decade after being routed by invading Vietnamese forces. "Cambodia was the first place where I realised the world wasn't quite right. What has occurred under the Khmer Rouge was so far beyond my understanding... that ignoring it became impossible," said Dunlop.
He visited Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the Phnom Penh prison that has been transformed into a genocide museum, and saw the walls covered with photographs of the victims' faces. Duch's picture was also there. "If there was one person that could provide something close to an explanation as to what happened, it would be him," Dunlop said in an interview with AFP in Bangkok, where he now lives. By the late 1990s, Dunlop was on a quest to find the maths teacher turned revolutionary, who is accused of overseeing the execution of some 15,000 prisoners at S-21. Dunlop even carried a photograph of him in his wallet. He began to ask Khmer Rouge defectors if they recognised Duch, but with no success. "I was trying to work out whether they were trying to hide something or telling me the truth because he was a terrifying figure by any standard," Dunlop said.
Then one day, during a walk in a village in western Cambodia, he came face to face with Duch, who was working for a Christian aid agency under a false name. "It was Duch. Immediately I knew it was him," Dunlop recalled. "He was very disarming and friendly. We talked a lot. I tried to ask him questions that would not arouse his suspicion." For a journalist it was the scoop of a lifetime. Dunlop, worried about what might happen to Duch if his whereabouts became widely known, notified the United Nations in Phnom Penh of his discovery. He returned to see the former jailer several times in an attempt to learn more about him. Then Dunlop decided to give Duch the chance to defend himself for a magazine article he was writing.
Three times in one day he denied being the chief of Tuol Sleng, before suddenly confessing. "Suddenly he was talking about running S-21, responsibilities, his remorse, the fact that he felt he'd been betrayed by the communist party because he wanted to be a good communist and not an executioner." Duch was arrested a few weeks later and has spent more than a decade in prison. Dunlop has requested interviews with him for his biography, "The Lost Executioner," but Duch indicated he would only talk after the end of the trial.
Initially called to testify at the tribunal, the photographer was later dropped from the list of witnesses, without explanation. To those who say Monday's verdict might never have come about without him, Dunlop smiles. "It was just a matter of time before somebody else would discover him. What's strange for me in the end is that he should walk up to me and I should recognise him immediately." Duch is the first Khmer Rouge cadre to be prosecuted in an international court. He is also the first to have confessed - although he also asked to be acquitted and released - and the tribunal is relying on his testimony in the planned trial of four regime leaders. "Whatever you make of his confession, contrition, lack of contrition or arrogance, the fact that we had somebody talking about that period of history is very significant," said Dunlop. Prosecutors have demanded Duch be sentenced to 40 years in prison - in effect a life sentence for the 67-year-old. Dunlop does not plan to be in court for the verdict. "It's not my story. It's the Cambodians' story," he said.