RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: Khmer Rouge Custodial Torture Exposed

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (phnom penh)
  • Sunday, March 29, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The tourists got to listen to Chum Mey, now 78 years, who was among the 11 people who came out alive from the four buildings that were turned into the Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21. At least 12,380 people imprisoned here, including children, were tortured and killed.

Chum Mey’s account of the sufferings that male and female prisoners endured within Tuol Sleng helped bring alive the scenes the visitors encountered when walking through the three floors of each of the grey-walled buildings, their window grills encrusted with rust and sections wrapped in barbed wire.

Some rooms have rusty bed frames on which prisoners were shackled and tortured. There is an endless gallery of black and white pictures of the victims - headshots - that the Tuol Sleng’s jailors took soon after the prisoners were brought in. Some show terror in their eyes.

In the coming weeks, Cambodians are expected to learn of hitherto unknown details of the horrors wreaked within the walls of the largest centre of detention and torture when the Khmer Rouge held this country under its brutal grip from Apr. 17, 1975 to Jan. 16, 1979.

That will be from the chief jailor of Tuol Sleng, Kaing Khek Eav or ‘Duch.’ His trial, from Mar. 30 onwards, and the first of four, is before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

It marks the end of a 30-year wait for justice. The genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of close to 1.7 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population at that time.

The victims were either executed or died of forced labour or starvation as the extremist Maoist group tried to create, by brutal force, an agrarian utopia.

‘’A lot of Duch’s trial will focus on Tuol Sleng,’’ Sara Colm, senior Cambodia researcher for the global rights lobby Human Rights Watch, told IPS. ‘’We should hear details about how it functioned and the crimes committed there.’’

The ECCC’s schedule is unequivocal on the spotlight that Tuol Sleng will come under. ‘’The Trial chamber judges will question the accused first and then in turn the relevant civil parties, witnesses and experts in the order it considers useful, topic by topic,’’ states the ECCC’s website.

The topics include ‘’establishment of S-21,’’ ‘’implementation of (Khmer Rouge) policy at S-21’’ and ‘’functioning of S-21.’’

Among the Phnom Penh residents who hope to follow the trial is Chea Vannath, who lives in a spacious house, a minute’s walk from Tuol Sleng. ‘’She was executed there,’’ said the 65-year-old respected Cambodian political analyst, referring to the death of her cousin.

‘’They first killed her husband, who had been the head of another Khmer Rouge prison. We do not know what really happened during that period,’’ she added. ‘’The Duch trial will allow the older and younger generation to hear something new. But it will be a painful process for Cambodians to go through for one more time.’’

What is known includes publications brought out by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a research organisation based in Phnom Penh that has, since 1995, identified 20,000 mass graves, located 198 Khmer Rouge prisons and interviewed nearly one million victims in preparation for a war crimes tribunal.

One DC-Cam publication has been distributed to Cambodian high schools since mid-March to educate students about Khmer Rouge atrocities. Till now, most students learnt about the oppressive rule of the government of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge regime was officially known, through stories told within families and media accounts.

‘’[Prisoners were] taken to cells where they were shackled with chains fixed to walls or the concrete floor, while those kept in larger cells had their legs shackled to alternating iron bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in the opposite directions,’’ the DC-Cam book for high schools, ‘A History of Democratic Kampuchea’, reveals about Tuol Sleng.

‘’Harsh tactics were used to extract confessions at S-21. Prisoners were beaten with hands, sticks or tree branches. Sometimes they were lashed with wires or given electric shocks,’’ the publication adds. ‘’Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds or holding prisoners’ heads under water.’’

Female prisoners were singled out for additional forms of suffering, states the 75-page publication. ‘’[They] were tortured by cutting off their breasts’’ or ‘’were sometimes raped by the interrogators, even though sexual abuse was against [Khmer Rouge] policy’’.

Some of this horror has been depicted in the paintings by Vannath, one more among the 11 survivors of Tuol Sleng. His canvases in colour spare nothing in terms of details to convey the pain on the faces of the victims as they were being brutalised by their interrogators.

These paintings of pain, which have poured out of his memory over the last 30 years, have been as vital as the works of DC-Cam to shed light on the horrors that unfolded within the walls of S-21. Some are displayed on the walls of Tuol Sleng today. Some hang on the walls of his private gallery next to a restaurant that Vannath now runs.

But such art may be drawing to an end, now that ECCC is trying Duch for the crimes he committed as the torturer in chief of Tuol Sleng. ‘’I will stop painting torture in Tuol Sleng if the court convicts Duch,’’ the soft-spoken 62-year-old said in a room filled with painful reminders of his one year in the prison that has come to symbolise the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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