The man who supervised the infamous Tuol Sleng torture compound during the Khmer Rouge regime is on trial now in Cambodia, and has offered an apology to his victims and their families. Given how long it has taken to see anybody face any charges, this seems welcome. I have been to Tuol Sleng; it is set up as a very simple museum now. Mostly the rooms are empty, and the walls lined with black-and-white photos of the victims taken at some point during their processing by the bureaucrats at the prison, like mug shots. Some of them have already been beaten, others are apparently unharmed. All of them know what's going to happen.
“My current plea is that I would like you to please leave an open window for me to seek forgiveness,” said Duch, who is 66. One of five defendants in the United Nations-backed trial, he faces a possible life sentence on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes as well as homicide and torture....
Duch’s lawyers presented a vigorous defense of a man who has admitted to overseeing the torture and execution of at least 14,000 people, portraying him as a man trapped inside a giant killing machine who now finds himself singled out for prosecution.
Asserting that Tuol Sleng was just one of 196 similar institutions — and far from the worst of them — one of his lawyers, Kat Savuth, asked: “Is it fair? Is this called justice?”
“Each prison had the same orders from Angkar,” he said, referring to the Khmer Rouge leadership, “all conducted torture and execution. Why is only Duch brought to trial? He is only a scapegoat.”
He added: “It would be better not to try anyone than to try some and leave others at large.”
Duch’s second lawyer, Francois Roux, said Duch was part of a hierarchy of terror in which all the actors were in effect victims as well as perpetrators.
“It was because of the terror that every link in the chain of command acted zealously to please superiors,” he said.
Duch had admitted his part in sowing fear among his subordinates, he said. “Does this mean therefore that we should cloak in silence the fact that he himself received orders? What we agree happened below happened equally above him.”
Taking his argument of moral equivalence a step further, he said that just as Duch had dehumanized his victims, his accusers and victims were guilty of dehumanizing him.
“Duch remains a human being,” he said, addressing the prosecutors. “Maybe there are certain points at which he has a bit of trouble admitting certain things. But maybe you as well have trouble admitting certain things.”
In his address to the court, Duch said he did not even dare think about challenging orders he received from his superiors.
“So it was a life or death situation for me myself, and my family as a whole,” he said. “As the person in charge of Tuol Sleng I never attempted to find an alternative other than obeying an order, even though I knew that obeying the order meant that numerous people would perish.”
He said he felt remorse and shame “in the eyes of those who were victims and those who lost loved ones in the regime, including my own loved ones, who lost family members as well.”
John recently got a copy of The Kindly Ones . The reviews left me little inclined to read it. I read the first chapter at John's suggestion, and it really is quite excellent. The section that followed also seemed gripping, though nothing horrible had happened yet. I'm still not sure whether I'm going to make it through the whole thing, though. Have any of you read it?