First Witness Takes Stand

A French scholar takes the stand in Cambodia, becoming the first witness in a landmark trial of ex-Khmer Rouge leaders.
2009-04-09
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Francois Bizot at his residence in Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai, Aug. 22, 2007.
Francois Bizot at his residence in Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai, Aug. 22, 2007.
AFP

PHNOM PENH—A French scholar who was one of a few survivors of detention under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge has become the first witness at a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal hearing evidence against the regime’s chief jailer and torturer.

Francois Bizot, 69, an anthropologist, said he received relatively light treatment. He had been seized while researching Buddhism in the countryside on suspicion of working for the CIA.

The U.N. tribunal has opened with a trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, a former math teacher accused of supervising Tuol Sleng prison and sending thousands of people to their deaths in the so-called “Killing Fields” period when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-79.

Terror was everywhere."

Francois Bizot

Bizot spent three months at M-13, a secret jungle prison that Duch ran from 1971-75, while the Khmer Rouge was an insurgent faction fighting a U.S.-backed government. He later wrote a book about his detention titled The Gate.

Bizot said he was never beaten and Duch spoke to him politely. He said he was required to write several statements of innocence and freed after a few months, making him one of only 10 who survived the jungle prison camp.

“I can’t recall M-13 without recalling the terrifying atmosphere of fear and death, or how much this atmosphere was embodied in Duch. Terror was everywhere,” Bizot said.

“When Duch came back from meetings with his superiors, it was impossible not to see his despondency...You have to understand that it was always about deciding when the executions would take place,” he told the court.

Some sympathy

He acknowledged some sympathy for Duch, who has publicly apologized and sought forgiveness for his role in sending some 16,000 people to their deaths at the regime’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

“I must come to terms with what’s in me with relation to a double reality, the reality of a man who was the force of a state institutional massive killing, and I cannot imagine being in his shoes today with so much horror left behind,” Bizot said.

“On the other hand, the recollection I have today of a young man who committed his life to a cause and to a purpose that was based on the idea that it was not only legitimate, it was deserved,” he said. “I don’t know what I can make of it.”

“Duch was a man who looked much like many friends of mine, a Marxist who was prepared to surrender his life for the revolution,” Bizot said.

Crimes against humanity

Duch faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and premeditated murder. He faces life in jail at the court, which does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

Up to 2 million people are thought to have died during the four years of Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970s.

The trial continued as a third day of private talks aimed at setting up a corruption-monitoring mechanism at the court broke down on Wednesday night between U.N. Assistant Secretary for Legal Affairs Peter Taksoe-Jensen and Cambodian government officials.

Defense attorneys and human rights groups say allegations that Cambodian staff at the court pay kickbacks to keep their jobs could derail the entire tribunal.

Original reporting by RFA's Khmer service. Khmer service director: Kem Sos. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Additional reporting by news agencies. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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