Kiang Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who has died aged 77, was a quietly spoken maths teacher who became the chief executioner of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and killed about 1.7 million people – a fifth of the population.
In 2007 Duch became the first Khmer Rouge figure to face justice when he was formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity and detained by Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
When, in 2010, he was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment, it was the first verdict involving a senior member of the “killing fields” regime that devastated a generation of Cambodians. In 2012 his sentence was extended to life imprisonment.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, seized control of Cambodia in April 1975 after a vicious civil war and began dismantling society in its drive to create a Maoist agrarian paradise cleansed of class enemies. Religion, schools and currency were abolished and millions of people were exiled to farms, where many died of starvation and overwork or were executed.
Duch, pronounced “Doik’’, the overseer of a series of jungle prisons during the civil war, was made head of Tuol Sleng, a former French lycée in Phnom Penh, which became a secret political prison known as S-21 after the regime seized the capital in 1975.
There, what began as “punishing” just a few dozen prisoners turned into a daily killing ritual as the regime sought to purge itself of its “enemies”. Of the 16-20,000 or so people who entered the prison between 1975 and 1979, all were tortured (one of the regulations was: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all”), and all but seven were killed.
Ever-meticulous, Duch kept copious records of the routine at Tuol Sleng – including descriptions of torture, forced “confessions” and photographs of victims before and after they were, as the Khmer Rouge put it, “smashed to pieces”. As Vietnamese troops advanced on Phnom Penh in 1979 Pol Pot’s second-in command, Nuon Chea, wrote to Duch, ordering him to kill the final prisoners, burn the archives and flee.
Duch complied with the first order (Hanoi’s troops found the last victims of Tuol Sleng had been executed while still chained to the beds, blood smearing the floor), but there was no time to destroy the archives, a lapse that would cost both men dear when, after much pressure, the Cambodians finally brought them to justice.
The records charted the fates of 12,380 people. At Duch’s trial the prosecutor described how prisoners were “beaten with rattan sticks and whips, electrocuted, had toenails and finger nails pulled out, were suffocated with plastic bags forcibly tied over their heads and were stripped naked and had their genitals electrocuted”.
A 1978 document showed that 17 children whose parents were suspected of treachery were brought to Tuol Sleng, where Duch signed the order “Kill them all.” Babies were dropped from the balconies of the prison because they were a distraction to torture.
The jail’s function was to liquidate suspected traitors inside the ruling Communist Party. Duch extracted confessions of elaborate conspiracies involving CIA agents or Vietnamese spies to justify the purges, with long lists of names to purge in the future. When their confessions were complete, or when the prison had no space for newcomers, Duch wrote “smash” on a list of names.
The victims were driven to the “killing fields”, clubbed on the neck and had their throats cut. Some were crudely beaten to death with hoes. Most of those who worked under Duch were uneducated teenage boys, whom Duch said could be easily indoctrinated because they were “like a blank piece of paper”.
After the downfall of the regime in 1979, Duch vanished and was widely assumed to be dead. He was discovered in 1999 by Nic Dunlop, an Irish photographer, living under a false identity and working for an American charity in a refugee camp on the Thai border.
In an interview with the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review Duch admitted ordering the torture and execution of countless victims, and indicated he was willing to stand trial for his crimes.
“I have done very bad things, “ he was quoted as saying. “Now it is time to bear the consequences of my actions.” But while he accepted responsibility for the killings at Tuol Sleng, he said the orders for them came from the central committee of the Khmer Rouge.
At his trial Duch, who had converted from Maoism to born-again Christianity in the 1990s, expressed remorse and begged for forgiveness. But victims questioned whether his remorse was genuine after Duch asked to be acquitted in his closing remarks in November 2009.
The question of what drove him to commit evil on such a scale was one to which there was never a satisfactory answer.
A psychological examination released by the UN-backed court reported him to be “meticulous, conscientious, control-oriented, attentive to detail and seeks recognition from his superiors,” suggesting the answer lay in a terrifyingly banal combination of bureaucratic love of order and a desire to please those above him.
A Cambodian of Chinese descent, Duch was born Kiang Guek Eav on November 17 1942 into a poor family in the northern province of Kompong Thom . His father worked as a clerk and his mother grew vegetables and fruit to sell. Duch was the eldest of five children and, being the only son, enjoyed the privilege of an education and rewarded his parents by becoming a star pupil.
Impressed by his love of mathematics, his teachers helped to finance his studies through an elite school in Phnom Penh and college, where he trained to be a teacher. One of those who helped him would years later arrive at Tuol Sleng where, on Duch’s orders, he was tortured and put to death.
It was during his time at teachers’ college that Duch joined the Communist Party of Kampuchea. After becoming a mathematics teacher in 1965, he soon headed a communist cell.
“I joined the revolution in order to transform society, to oppose the government, to oppose torture,” he said during his trial.“I sacrificed everything for the revolution, sincerely and absolutely.”
Students of Duch recalled him as a good, patient and kind teacher whose worst habits were chain-smoking and dressing poorly.
But his work for the party against the “fascist” regime of King Norodom Sihanouk would lead to a two-year spell in jail in the late 1960s from which he was released in an amnesty granted to political prisoners. By 1970 he had fled to the jungle to join the growing Khmer Rouge guerrilla army.
During the civil war of the early 1970s, inside the zones controlled by the Khmer Rouge, he chose the revolutionary name Duch after a model student in a school book from his youth. He oversaw a series of jungle prisons before being made head of Tuol Sleng.
Following the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power, he remained active in the movement as, supported by the United States, China and Thailand, the Khmer Rouge fought Vietnam’s occupation from the jungles during the 1980s. He was said to have worked for Radio China and later taught English and maths in at least one refugee camp.
He changed his name to Hang Pin and was said to have converted to Christianity in 1995 after his wife was murdered, and even became a Baptist lay preacher.
By the time he was discovered by Nic Dunlop he was working for a Christian aid agency in western Cambodia. “I told Nic Dunlop, ‘Christ brought you to meet me’,” Duch told his trial. “I said, ‘Before I used to serve human beings, but now I serve God’.”
After his arrest Duch spent more than nine years in jail before being put on trial.
In the early 1970s Duch married a Khmer Rouge comrade, Chhim Sophal, with whom he was said to have had four children.
Comrade Duch, born November 17 1942, died September 2 2020