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Former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, sitting in the courtroom at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Feb. 3, 2012.

NHET SOKHENG/ECCC via AFP/Getty Images

Nic Dunlop is a photographer and author of The Lost Executioner: The Story of Comrade Duch and the Khmer Rouge.

In a prison known as S-21, more than 12,000 Cambodian men, women and children were tortured and killed, some of the two million people who died under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 to 1979. In S-21, a man named Comrade Duch – Pol Pot’s chief executioner and the former head of the Khmer Rouge secret police – led the killings as the prison’s commandant.

Today, the Khmer Rouge are gone, ousted by Vietnam in 1979 and finally defeated by the Cambodian government in 1999 after years of guerrilla war. The prison has become a museum, its walls adorned with mug shots of arriving prisoners. Though they number in the thousands, they are but a small representation of the many horrors inflicted by the infamous regime; those responsible for the killings had never faced international justice. Now, Duch is gone, too; he died last week, at the age of 77, serving out his life sentence as the first former Khmer Rouge leader to be tried and convicted at the UN-backed court in Cambodia.

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For me, as a photographer during the war, Duch – who had disappeared after the fall of the Khmer Rouge – became something of an obsession. By 1998, I began carrying a photograph of Duch, taken from the prison when the Khmer Rouge were in power, and asking people if anyone recognized him. I believed that if there was one man who could shed light on this period, it was Duch. He was a key link between the Khmer Rouge leadership and the killing.

I never expected I’d actually find him. But in early 1999, with the war between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge finally over, I hitched a ride with Canadian sappers into a former Khmer Rouge zone. I was wandering around taking photographs when a small, wiry man walked up to me and introduced himself. I was stunned. It was Duch.

I returned several times to meet him. Finally, with journalist Nate Thayer, we confronted Duch and he confessed to his role as executioner, establishing the chain of command and revealing that the Khmer Rouge had deliberately planned mass murder. A born-again Christian, Duch expressed what appeared to be genuine remorse: “I feel very bad about the killings … there were many who were innocent.” As a result of his extraordinary confession, he was arrested and taken to Phnom Penh to await trial.

Many saw the Khmer Rouge tribunal as a first step toward ending the “culture of impunity” in Cambodia, a country plagued by violence. Human-rights workers have investigated hundreds of political murders, but no one has ever been convicted. Newspapers often carry reports of “people’s courts” where mobs act as police, judge and executioner, where suspected thieves are caught and killed by angry mobs. This rage serves as a measure of the frustration of a people who have never known any form of justice – a lack of accountability many consider an enduring legacy of Khmer Rouge rule.

At his trial, Duch was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Prosecutors had sought a 40-year sentence but, because of mitigating circumstances – time already served in prison, his willingness to assist the court, his stated remorse and his repeated apologies to the victims throughout the trial – his sentence was reduced to 19 years. After the sentencing, the media rushed to get the responses of survivors, many of whom saw the verdict as a betrayal; they were outraged that a man who ordered the killing of so many thousands of people should be sentenced to a mere 19 years.

“He tricked everybody,” said Chum Mey, a survivor of Duch’s prison, as he wiped tears from his eyes. “I was a victim during the Khmer Rouge, and now I’m a victim again.”

Nothing can compensate for the misery that people such as Duch inflicted. As one judge said, “a sentence can only be symbolic.” But the judgment “finally represents credible legal acknowledgement of the Khmer Rouge’s criminal policies,” that judge added, and the acknowledgment of mitigating circumstances and unlawful detention in the sentence by Cambodian legal professionals set a precedent. This was lost in the news coverage, which focused almost entirely on the response of the victims. And when an upper court UN war-crimes tribunal extended his sentence to life imprisonment in 2012, I wondered whether we in the news media had understood the purpose of the trial at all. To me, the tribunal – which faced mounting criticism – had caved to public opinion.

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In the West, the voice of the victim has come to be seen as the only authentic voice in times of extremity. It is only natural that we empathize with their pain and suffering; it is vital that we do. But this can blind us to other truths. The Duch trial established a precedent of due process: that those accused of the most heinous crimes would have the right to a fair trial with both a defence and prosecution. Amid this background, few remembered that S-21 was set up to purge the ranks of the Khmer Rouge itself; as with Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with internal enemies that had to be killed. Indeed, among the photographs of Duch’s victims at the museum are those of former executioners who themselves fell foul of the regime as it devoured its own.

The last time I saw Duch was at his trial in 2010. He peered through the glass of the court at the crowd that assembled to watch the proceedings. He looked directly at me. An amused expression came over his face as I returned his gaze. He slowly raised his hand and gave me an American military salute. I returned the gesture. With an approving nod, Duch resumed his position to face the judges' bench.

My identification of Duch all those years ago was a small and accidental part of something far larger. These days, I struggle with Duch’s trial and our reaction to it. With his death, perhaps his victims can find a measure of comfort after the horrors they’ve endured. But I can’t help thinking that an attempt to render justice and set a legal precedent reverted to the very thing the tribunal was set up to prevent – where public reaction, rather than legal process, dictated the outcome.

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